Elementary school students have First Amendment rights
Just in time for this year’s holiday season, a federal court gave parents of school children some hope regarding their kids’ parties and gift exchange at school. The case involved the issue of elementary school students handing out goody bags or cards at school with religious messages.
Students in the Plano Independent School District in Texas were prohibited from giving out pencils with such messages as “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The pencils were allegedly confiscated and banned from the school. Other students were told not to write “Merry Christmas” on holiday cards sent to retirement homes.
In the case of Morgan v. Swanson, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on November 29, 2010, that “It is clearly established that elementary school students have First Amendment rights.” They may not be as extensive as high school students but the younger students do have such rights. Consequently they may express their opinions, even on religious subjects, if religious viewpoint discrimination hasn’t taken place at school. The case was sent back to the trial court to determine if the school discriminated against the distribution of the materials based on the content of the messages.
Update: On December 17, 2010, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals announced that it will rehear this case. The full court (16 judges) heard the case and ruled on September 27, 2011 for the students. Writing for the majority, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod stated: “We hold that the First Amendment protects all students from viewpoint discrimination against private, non-disruptive, student-to-student speech.” Due to the unsettled nature of this area of the law, the court granted immunity to the principals involved although their actions violated the constitutional rights of the children.
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was filed with an expected decision whether to accept the case or not in June, 2012.