Student loses case involving religious message in speech

Friday, January 27, 2012

A school district in Craryville, N.Y., did not violate a former middle school student’s First Amendment rights when the principal told her to omit religious sentiments from her speech at a graduation-type event, a federal court has ruled.

The student, known in court papers as A.M., earned the right as co-president of her class to deliver a message at the annual “Moving Up Ceremony” in June 2009 at Taconic Hills Central School District. A.M. asked her English teacher to review her proposed speech.

The last line of the speech read: “As we say our goodbyes and leave middle school behind, I say to you, may the LORD bless you and keep you; make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” The English teacher told A.M. to consult with the principal. Her school counselor gave her similar advice.

Principal Neil Howard allegedly told A.M. that the last line “sounded too religious” and should be omitted. A.M.’s mother requested that Superintendent Mark Sposato review the matter. Sposato agreed with Howard. The superintendent said the religious message delivered by A.M. could violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Under the establishment clause, government bodies, including public schools, are barred from promoting religion.

A.M. delivered her message without the last line at the event. Soon, however, she sued the school district, Howard and Sposato in federal court, contending that they violated her free-speech rights. Specifically, she alleged that they discriminated against her on the basis of her religious viewpoint.

U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe of the Northern District of New York granted the school defendants summary judgment in his Jan. 23, 2012, ruling in A.M. v. Taconic Hills Central School District.

A.M. argued that the standard in the U.S. Supreme Court’s student-speech decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969) should control the analysis of the case. In Tinker, the Court ruled that school officials cannot censor student speech unless they can reasonably forecast that the speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others.

However, the school district contended that the proper analysis should come from the student-press decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988). In Hazelwood, the Court ruled that school officials can censor school-sponsored student expression if they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

Tinker applies to student-initiated speech, while Hazelwood applies to school-sponsored speech. A.M. argued that Tinker applied because the ceremony was run by the student council. However, Sharpe found that the ceremony was school-sponsored, as the school provided the funds, podium and microphone. Additionally, the school’s letterhead adorned the event programs, announcements and other materials.

Sharpe said the school had a legitimate educational purpose in preventing the religious message from being spoken. He quoted Hazelwood for the proposition that one such legitimate purpose is “to refuse to sponsor student speech that might reasonably be perceived … to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”

Sharpe noted that the school district had received complaints about a Christmas tree from the parents of a Jewish student and complaints from the parents of a Jehovah’s Witness student regarding the school’s Halloween activities.

“Given the past complaints Taconic received from the parents of the Jewish and Jehovah’s Witness students, and their desire to avoid violating the Establishment Clause, its decision to edit the last sentence of A.M.’s speech was reasonable,” he wrote.

A call placed to A.M.’s attorney was not returned.

School-district attorneys Patrick J. Fitzgerald III and Scott P. Quesnel told the First Amendment Center in an e-mail: “The District is pleased that the Federal Court has dismissed this lawsuit, and that it has confirmed that the School District acted appropriately and in accordance with the requirements of the First Amendment with respect to this matter at all times.”

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