Sunday, October 2, 2011

Candy Cane Controversy


The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has ruled that elementary school principals are immune from liability for preventing students from passing out religious-themed items. The Morgan v. Swanson and Bomchill case, also known as the “Candy Cane” case was originally filed by parents of elementary students after school principals told the children they could not distribute their religious gifts. The students were banned from handing out candy cane pens with religious messages on them, giving out tickets to a religious play, and writing “Merry Christmas” on holiday cards sent to troops overseas. Attached to the pens were little cards titled “Legend of the Candy Cane” and explained the Christian origin of candy canes.

By a 10-6 vote, the Court agreed that principals Lynn Swanson and Jackie Bomchill deserved qualified immunity from being assessed punitive damages for their actions, reversing a district court's ruling that could have subjected each of the principals to monetary damages.

In the Morgan v. Swanson and Bomchill case the school principals argued that the First Amendment protection of Free Speech does not extend to the distribution of non-curricular materials in public schools. Government officials, on appeal, claimed that elementary school students are too young to have free speech rights. This case did not just involve two principals and some students; it threatened the basic rights every American is given, regardless of their age. The court ruled on November 29, 2010 that it is clearly established that elementary students have First Amendment rights. Had the court ruled in favor of the principals they “would have literally have stripped away the First Amendment rights of 42 million U.S. school children overnight," Liberty Institute president Kelly Shackelford (attorney for the parents of the elementary students) notes. "So we're very grateful that the court refused to do that. They said the First Amendment does apply."

Although this case is closed, what is currently under dispute by those involved is the lack of punishment for censoring the elementary student’s right to free speech. By limiting the rights of elementary students, these principals taught such young children that they do not have given rights. Not only did the principal’s actions take away rights, they violated a law and were not punished for it, what kind of message does that send to kids?

The 5th Circuit Judge Fortunato “Pete” Benavides said that “the many cases and the large body of literature on this set of issues' demonstrate a 'lack of adequate guidance,' which is why no federal court of appeals has ever denied qualified immunity to an educator in this area.” Essentially, since there is no precedent for handling teachers who violate students’ rights by trying to keep religion and the state separate, it’s okay to let them get off without any punishment. Also during the trial, the principals claimed that religion in school is a very confusing area. This statement could also set a precedent that any educators who are involved in a similar situation can just claim they don’t understand.

Personally, I believe that the principals should not be immune from liability for preventing elementary students from passing out religious-themed items. They broke a law, now they have to suffer the consequences, which most likely won’t be that detrimental anyway. Although I recognize that these educators were trying to keep religion out of the schools their actions took away elementary students basic rights. In any other free speech case there have been consequences, just because they are educators should not give the principals an exemption. If anything, the court should enforce the law more strictly on the principals because their actions directly affect children. I applaud the actions of the Liberty Institute who are considering appealing the issue of the principal’s immunity, because of the precedent it would set by leaving it unchallenged.

14 comments:

Harry R. said...

I feel that the punishment which the school officials may or not receive is not as significant as the ruling on the constitutional issue at stake. Just because an event occurs on school property does not give the school complete control over it. A student distributing a pencil discussing religious themes should never be restricted, for this restriction would be a blatant violation of free speech and free exercise of religion. Students have all the same constitutional rights as legal adults, regardless of their status as students within a school system.

Zoey Goldnick said...

It is clear that these children have free speech but I do not think it is unreasonable that schools be cautious of limiting some that may entangle religion in the schools. They were trying to prevent an association between the distribution of the religious material and the school directly. I think the school should not be punished for being cautious of other students' rights. They were trying to ensure that not one religion was being promoted over another.

Jean A said...

I feel that the elementary school principles should not be entirely held accountable for their actions. People, no matter their age are entitled to free speech, yet when dealing with a public school situation, I think the school was just trying to safeguard against an establishment claim. A student who was handed a candy could go home and his/her parents could see the religious message and make a claim that this was violating the establishment clause. School's are to remain neutral when it comes to religious matters, thus to the school principals this meant denying the students the right to pass out religious materials.

Ally R said...

I do not believe that the schools' principles should be held accountable because they were just trying to remain non-biased within the community they are in charge of. Had school officials permitted the distribution of these religious gifts, it could have been stated that they were favoring one religion over the rest, and controversy still would have occurred. Although I do not believe the principles should be punished, I do agree that they were in the wrong. If students are allowed to wear religious symbols within the classroom, they should be allowed to hand out candy canes, pencils, etc. Limiting children's abilities to express their religion with one another at school would be wrong and violate their free exercise.

Sophie K said...

I think the school took reasonable cautionary steps in limiting their students’ actions. The school did not want to endorse any sort of religious material in fear that they would promote one religion over the other. I also think that Harry is correct in pointing out that the school does not have complete control over what happens on their grounds. If children want to bring in candy canes, how is that any different than children wearing crosses?

Casey K said...

At an elementary school it is the principals responsibility to make sure everything runs smoothly. The principals could very well have prevented controversy through their actions, and punishing them would be unreasonable. They were not trying to limit the rights of a certain religion; they were simply doing their jobs. Their actions of preventing the kids from passing out candy canes may have been wrong, but people make mistakes while doing their jobs all the time. With all the controversy that has surrounded schools and the establishment clause, I can completely see the side of a principal who would rather have strict separation in their school. The principals were attempting to follow the constitution, and I do not believe that is worthy of a punishment.

Chris R. said...

The moment we start forbidding young children from passing out candy canes and writing Merry Christmas is the moment at which we might as well tell these children to stop thinking for themselves. Public schools do not exist to indoctrinate, and free exercise is guaranteed until it infringes on the rights of others. If this activity is restricted, then we are saying that no child is ever permitted to speak the word "God" in public school, and this epitomizes the belief that secular is merely anti-religion, and this is itself establishment.

Jon W. said...

I understand the precautionary measures the school's officials took. This post reminds me of one a few weeks ago regarding the high school math teacher and his "one nation under god" posters. Is a teachers role any different than the students in influencing ones religion? I acknowledge the rights and liberties of the students however, I do not believe a classroom is an appropriate setting to distribute religious objects.

Grant Z said...

I think the principals were wrong to restrict the children's speech, but I also think they should not be held responsible. I totally understand why they thought they should restrict the candy canes - if a non-Christian child brings that home to his parents, what is that going to look like? They were just being cautious, and though they were definitely overly-cautious, I don't think they should be liable for damages in our highly-litigant society.

PamelaR said...

I think a major issue with this incident, and with our comments and feelings about it, is that all speech is not free. Public schools are much more restricted on what the teachers or students can say or do on school grounds because it may disrupt the educational process--while people can do things in public like wear an anti-semetic tshirt, it's not unconstitutional to ban this type of speech in schools. I'm undecided about whether the faculty was right in limiting the candy cane distribution, but I do know that the students did not have the guaranteed right to do it in the first place.

Sam S said...

I disagree with Allison and do not believe that principals should be punished for trying to keep religion out of their schools. They are supposed to keep the schools neutral when it comes to matters of religion, and while the students do have free speech the principals should not be punished for trying to do their job to the best of their abilities. Obviously, this was a serious grey area and the principals had to make a decision and stick by it.

Kathryn M. said...

This post is fascinating because my High School had similar restrictions with candy-cane distribution last year (http://www.wusa9.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=126671&catid=188). While the candy-cane distribution at my High School was more of a scapegoat for bullying not conducive to a public learning environment; it is often difficult to determine religious “sincerity” as protected by United States v. Seeger. Children, regardless of imposition by their parents, have the right to distribute religious messages in a school environment as long as it is not disruptive to the classroom setting. According to Everson v. Board of Education, “state power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.” Thus, even though the children may be expressing indoctrinated ideas from their parents, they are within their constitutional right of freedom of expression and free exercise of religion to display religious philosophies through symbolism akin to crosses. Furthermore, since the children gave out the candy in a peaceful fashion, there is no notable “excessive entanglement” by the school administration that would warrant this restriction.

Christy said...

I think the actions of the principals and public school were understandable since they have a responsibility to the state and parents to provide secular schooling to the children. If the children went home with a religious pencil, like Jean noted, major issues could arouse. It was better for the principals to act on the issue rather than turn a blind eye, even though the children do have freedom of speech.

Annie M said...

I understand the ruling of this case, but I disagree with the fact that the principal was going outside his realm. Obviously the children should have free speech but I think the things the principal was not allowing were all justifiable. If the school had allowed pens with religous messages or Merry Christmas to be used loosely, it could have had opposite but equally harsh criticism.