School Officials Can’t Censor Student Speech, Not Even Religious Speech

Everyone knows that students have First Amendment rights, that the Constitution proverbially doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  Yet students in the Plano Independent School District in Texas (against whose speech code Cato previously filed a brief) were prohibited from handing out pencils with messages such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” or sending holiday cards to retirement homes that said “Merry Christmas.”

The students, through their parents, sued the district on First Amendment grounds, and were successful through a Fifth Circuit panel ruling that “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that prevents government officials from being held personally liable under certain circumstances for violating constitutional rights, did not apply in this case.  The panel’s holding is as important as it is unremarkable: School officials have fair warning that viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech during non-curricular activities violates the First Amendment.  The government certainly cannot do so simply because the speech happens to be religious.

The Fifth Circuit en banc (as a whole) vacated the panel’s decision, however, and decided to rehear the case.  Cato has filed a brief supporting the students and their parents; not only is it settled law that students have the right to free speech in public schools, but school officials should be held liable for violating those rights on the basis of the content of that speech.

Indeed, if the First Amendment means anything, it is that the government cannot suppress speech based solely on its content.  More specifically, when an area of the law is “clearly established,” officials cannot escape liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity simply doesn’t apply to public school officials who suppress speech in a non-curricular setting merely because the school district points to some legal disagreement in a dissent, concurrence, or other non-binding judicial opinion that disagrees with settled doctrine regarding viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech.

The en banc Fifth Circuit will hear the case, Morgan v. Swanson, later this spring.  Thanks to legal associate Michael Wilt for his help with the brief and this post.