Do outside groups have the right to distribute material on campus?

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Generally no. Adults from outside the school do not have an automatic right to distribute
materials to students in a public school. May school officials allow them to do
so? Although this area of the law is somewhat unclear, it is fair to say that
schools should exercise great caution before giving an outside group access to
students during the school day. Giving some groups access opens the door to
others. Moreover, if a religious group is allowed to actively distribute
religious literature to students on campus, that activity is likely to violate
the establishment clause.

At least one lower court has upheld “passive” distribution of materials in a secondary school by
religious and other community groups. Note that in this case the group left
materials for students to browse through and take only if they wished. Also, a
wide variety of community groups were given similar privileges, and the school
posted a disclaimer explaining that the school did not endorse these materials.
Under those conditions, this court allowed passive distribution, but only in the secondary-school setting (see Peck v. Upshur County, 4th Cir. 1998,
although other federal courts have rejected this distinction).

Schools may announce community events or meetings of groups — including
religious groups — that work with students. All of these groups should be
treated in the same way. The school should make clear that it does not sponsor
these community groups (see Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Stafford Township, 3rd Cir. 2004).