Court dodges viewpoint neutrality question

LOUISIANA — The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dodged the question Monday of whether the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision prohibits schools from engaging in viewpoint-based censorship, something the courts have disagreed on.

The case, Chiras v. Miller, arose after the Texas School Board of Education rejected an environmental science textbook submitted to it for use in Texas high schools.

The book’s author, Daniel Chiras, who was joined in his lawsuit by a Texas high school student enrolled in advanced placement classes, said his book contained no errors and met state curriculum requirements. The book was recommended for approval by the Texas Commissioner of Education and received high marks from the Science Teachers Association of Texas.

Chiras claimed the board rejected the book in 2001 solely because of testimony before the board by conservative groups that labeled it anti-Christian and anti-free enterprise.

The Student Press Law Center argued in a friend-of-the court brief that even in the context of a student publication that has not been opened up as a designated public forum for student expression, school officials should not be able to censor because they disagree with the views the students are expressing.

The SPLC brief was written by a team of attorneys, led by Joe Sullivan, from the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP.

The 5th Circuit said because textbook endorsements constitute government speech, the Hazelwood decision did not apply.

“Because we conclude that Hazelwood does not apply in this case, we do not consider whether Hazelwood requires viewpoint neutrality,” according to the decision.

Plaintiff’s attorneys said they are considering appealing the decision.

“We are, of course, disappointed by the Court’s ruling, and we are considering whether to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review,” said Adele Kimmel, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, in an e-mail.

Kimmel is a staff attorney for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, P.C., based in Washington, D.C.

—by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer