Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Non-Public Forum of a Public School

In the town of Roswell in New Mexico, another controversial case concerning religion, free speech and public schools has been brought to the federal court.  Several students in the Roswell Independent School District are members of a religious group that is not affiliated with the school called ‘Relentless in Roswell’.  Relentless in Roswell would often distribute food to the school community.  They had distributed chicken sandwiches to the teachers, hot chocolate to the students, and candy canes with religious messages to the communities.  In all of these instances the students did not ask for permission to distribute the treats, and they were never reprimanded for doing so.  One day in January, 2010, the members of Relentless decided to hand out small rubber figurines of a fetus.  The fetus had a verse from the bible, and also contact information for a pregnancy center inscribed on it.   After children began throwing the figures at each other the principle of the school told the distributors to shut it down because people were getting offended.   Nevertheless, two weeks later the group attempted to pass out the figurines once more.  That morning though the school announced that in order to pass things out students needed school approval, and anyone who did not get it would be subject to disciplinary measures.  The students were later given suspensions for handing out bracelets with religious messages without approval.  This case brings up several points, but the controversy I will discuss is whether the school district is within its right to infringe upon the students free exercise rights through the policy that requires all students to get permission before distributing objects in the school.
            An important aspect of this case was the court deciding the type of forum a public school is, because if it were deemed a public forum, than the government could not limit speech at the school.  The court first said that the school could not be classified as a public forum because although students are required to be at school by law, the teachers are charged with providing a “safe and secure” learning environment”.  The court then says that since both limited public forums, and non-public forums subject governments to the same requirements in order to limit speech, they do not have to distinguish between the two.  By looking at Good News Club v. Milford Central Sch, the court shows that the government can limit speech in these forums as long as the limitations are viewpoint neutral and reasonable.
            In order for the students to win this case they would have to prove that the school district was either unreasonable or discriminatory in practice.  The court first addresses the reasonability of the distribution law of the school district.  Using precedent from several similar cases the court shows that there are five reasonable justifications the school has in limiting distribution.  These include, shielding students from vulgar speech, maintaining security, and preserving a proper education environment.  I believe that these justifications are all reasonable because of the specific responsibilities and expectations of public schools.
The court is able to prove that the policy is not viewpoint discrimination because of the exact wording of the policy.  It gives specific circumstances when the superintendent can limit speech in the school and the wording of these circumstances do not suggest at all that it is aimed at any single religious belief or view.  Since the wording of the requirements in this policy is clear and does not single out any viewpoint I believe the policy to not be viewpoint discriminatory.
I believe that the school district is absolutely in their rights to create this policy that requires students to get approval before distributing items in school.  The school district must retain the right to create a safe learning environment for all students.  The distribution of items has the ability to cause major disruptions in a school.  On most cases I am all for the free exercise of all religion, but since this is taking place in a school I feel more strict rules must be applied.  If the school did not retain the right to limit this form of speech, then what would stop students from handing out extremely offensive objects that may have a huge influence over children?  Public schools are unique places, and in order to allow each student to feel safe and not feel offended or threatened, the district must be able to limit speech as long as the limitations are reasonable and non-discriminatory.  Since I believe that the school district abided by these requirements I think that the policy is constitutional.


Harry R. said...

I feel that the most important precedent to consider regarding this issue is Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). Here, students wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War were suspended. The Supreme Court ruled that such speech could only be restricted if the speech created a disturbance in the school which inhibited the learning environment. I feel that, so long as this is the basis for the school's restrictions, such rules do not unconstitutionally restrict students' rights.

Callie B said...

I agree with Casey. It is clear that public schools are not a public forum, time and time again the Court has ruled that public schools are one of the places with the most strict separation between church and state. This has clearly gotten to a point of disruption and the student's are toeing the line of appropriateness- something that seldom tolerated in public schools.

Mike HJ said...

I agree with Casey. I think that the school regulation requiring students to gain approval to distribute goods/items/etc. to the rest of the student body before actually being able to do so is a very legitimate regulation. Considering that teachers must adhere to specific guidelines with teh material they bring into the classroom, I feel that the students should be subject to those same guidelines. Freedom of speech or exercise is not violated in this instance, and the regulation is constitutional.