Federal judge denies relief to teacher who sued over banned-books pamphlets

Thursday, May 4, 2000


A federal judge has refused to force a Virginia high school to allow the posting of banned books pamphlets on a teacher's classroom door.

Jeff Newton, a Harrisonburg, Va., high school teacher who sued after the school's principal refused to allow him to post the pamphlets on his classroom door, has failed to obtain a preliminary injunction.

Since 1994, Newton, who teaches English at Spotswood High School, has posted an annual pamphlet published by several anti-censorship organizations denouncing book-banning.

However, in the fall of 1999, James Slye, principal of Spotswood, ordered Newton to remove the 1997-98 and the 1998-99 pamphlets from his classroom door.

A letter from Slye to Newton read: “The posting or display on a teacher's classroom door is considered an extension of an approved curriculum and is supposed to be professionally consistent with and have a direct, positive connection to the particular approved curriculum. A teacher's door … is not a billboard or vehicle for the promotion of the reading of such books.”

In January, Newton sued Slye and John H. Kidd, superintendent of Rockingham County Public Schools, after they told him to remove the pamphlets. Four students and several anti-censorship organizations involved in publishing the pamphlets joined the suit. The organizations included the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers Inc., the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores.

On May 2, U.S. District Judge James H. Michael Jr. denied the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction. Chris Finan, executive director of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said the attorneys for the plaintiffs would meet early next week to determine whether to appeal Michael's ruling or proceed further at the trial court level.

The judge noted that the defendants “believed that the pamphlets carried messages potentially compromising the themes of its current curricular initiatives,” such as “Family Life Education.”

Michael said that Newton could still make assignments about censorship and keep the pamphlets in his classroom. “The student plaintiffs will be able to see the pamphlets located within Newton's and other teachers' classrooms; thus, they are not being deprived access to the information,” Michael wrote in Newton v. Slye.

Newton argued that the defendants had infringed on his free-speech rights as a public employee. Public employees enjoy free-speech rights on the job as long as their speech is on a matter of public concern and is not outweighed by an employer's interest in efficiency.

Michael recognized that the pamphlets “deal with a matter of important public policy, the regulation of books and ideas in the public schools.” However, he noted that in the context and form, “this speech may dwindle down to an employment dispute which is outside the realm of public speech.”

“Taking all things into account, it is more likely that the posting of the pamphlets on any of the teachers' doors at SHS would be considered curriculum,” Michael wrote.

The judge added, “When speech by a teacher runs contrary to the curriculum the school board is trying to teach, a legitimate reason exists for requesting a teacher to distribute the pamphlets in a more supervised way.”

The plaintiffs also argued that the school officials had engaged in viewpoint discrimination by ordering Newton to take down the pamphlets. However, Michael wrote that “the motivation of the defendants was not to stifle the viewpoint that censorship was a harm to society.”

“Speech about banned books is an important issue of public concern,” said Finan. “It is also a real stretch that a mere listing of titles would undermine the school curriculum.”

“There is no room for the First Amendment to breathe inside the school with this ruling,” Finan said. “The judge really leaves no room for free thought in education and no room for dissent.”