The Twelve Rules of Christmas — Plus One

Twas’ bout a month before Christmas when the calls first appeared.

Student editors with the most frightening tales —  Oh Dear!

They interview, they research, they write, write, write, write.

But when it comes time to publish, they receive such a fright!

The Principal, Headmaster, The Dean or Whomever

has told them to stop, “Do not pull that Print Lever!”

So what dastardly phrase, what horrible quip

has led to this Dark Act of censorship?

My mind goes a-racing as I await words most foul…

The f-word? The b-word? — Or that nasty alternative to “bowel?”

When what to my delicate ears do they say?

It was “Merry Christmas,” they tell me, they could not convey.

“Hanukah” and “Kwanza” were off limits too.

These were stories, they’d been told, they just could not do.

I scratched my head, befuzzled by what I saw

because clearly Whomever had bambungled the law.

Alas, this is the time of year where the Ghost of the Law of Separation of Church and State makes his appearance at many schools and in many student media newsrooms. Many school officials, meaning well but confused by an area of law that can admittedly be hard to pin down, respond to student media articles or religious-themed columns by simply pulling out their 500,000-Mhz Ghostbuster gun and cleansing all theistic references.

While the church/state doctrine is real, it requires a more delicate touch, particularly in the context of student speech in public schools.

The law does prohibit the government, which includes public schools and public school officials and employees, from establishing or proselytizing a particular religious belief. Nor is government supposed to interfere with the right of individuals to practice their religion. Public school teachers can’t, for example, pass out evangelical pamphlets for their church in class; nor can they denounce the beliefs of others. The government’s goal — and, heavens, it can be a touchy one — is to shoot for religious neutrality.

But students are not government employees. And that’s key. The laws that prevent a teacher or principal from expressing their religious views while on the job don’t apply to student journalists expressing their own beliefs. In fact, the law protects religious speech just as it protects other forms of lawful student expression on campus. Where student editors — not school officials (and “officials” includes faculty advisers) — determine and create a student publication’s content, students’ First Amendment right to discuss religion and religious holidays is the same as their right to discuss anything else. That remains the case even though the school might help pay for and otherwise support the publication.

While student media advisers and other school administrators cannot require — and should really avoid anything that might be viewed as pushing — religious topics, there is nothing in the law that prohibits a student columnist from deciding on her own to write about her family’s holiday traditions, religious or otherwise. As long as that student writes the article and she or other students edit and make the decision to publish the article, all is well. To avoid confusion, we recommend the column or other material make clear it was written by a student and that any views or beliefs expressed are those of the student author and not the school. Otherwise, as long as it doesn’t seriously interfere with normal school activities and doesn’t contain other unlawful speech (libel, obscenity, etc.), the law presents no barrier to its publication. (And indeed, preventing its publication can be illegal censorship.)

To help school officials avoid the label of “Scrooge” — or being sued — attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have put together “The Twelve Rules of Christmas,” which, given some of the complexities of this area of law, is a solid and generally straightforward list of guidelines to help school and other government officials navigate the do’s and don’ts of religious speech.

Happy Holidays!