The First Amendment Protects Students’ Rights to Speak on Religious Subjects

If the First Amendment means anything, then school officials cannot prohibit students from handing out gifts with Christmas messages due to the religious content of those messages. Nonetheless, the Fifth Circuit held en banc that student speech rights are not “clearly established,” and that, therefore, two Plano, Texas officials could invoke qualified immunity to shield themselves from liability for doing so.

Yesterday Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the students’ request that the Supreme Court hear their case—our third brief in this long-running saga. We argue that educators have fair warning that viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech violates the First Amendment and thus may not invoke qualified immunity.

While the Fifth Circuit held that a constitutional right must have previously been defined with a “high degree of particularity” in a case that is “specific[ally] and factually analogous” to be clearly established, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that neither “fundamentally similar” nor “materially similar” cases are required and that general statements of law can give fair warning. Indeed, if the Fifth Circuit’s qualified-immunity standard is upheld, it will be so difficult to establish fair warning for unconstitutional actions that qualified immunity will cease to be “qualified.”

Student speech rights were clearly established by the foundational student-rights case of Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969), wherein the Court held that student speech cannot be suppressed unless the speech will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school,” subject to limited exceptions. Such exceptions include lewd or vulgar speech, or speech that may reasonably be viewed as advocating unlawful drug use. Certainly the student speech at issue here, which included Christmas greetings written on candy canes, and pencils and other small gifts with messages like “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” does not fall under those exceptions.

We further argue that the same standard for determining whether a law is clearly established should determine whether a court can look to nonbinding precedent; if Supreme Court and relevant-circuit precedent is on point, courts should not look to authority from other jurisdictions. These standards maintain the proper balance between providing officials with fair notice of behavior that could result in civil liability and ensuring that individuals have legal recourse when their rights are violated.

The Supreme Court will decide later this winter whether to take the case, Morgan v. Swanson, and hear argument in the fall.

Thanks to Cato legal associate Anastasia Killian for her help with this post, and with our brief.