A northern Texas school district attempted to banish all religious expression from its schools by prohibiting virtually all non-verbal student speech in any school-related context. Officials used this broad policy to promote an anti-religious orthodoxy and root out any and all religious speech. The Supreme Court made clear, however, in its seminal school speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that students enjoy First Amendment rights, and that core political and religious speech cannot be suppressed without showing that the speech will “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process.
Here, the Fifth Circuit upheld all of the district’s regulations and found that Tinker did not supply the relevant legal standard. It instead applied the intermediate scrutiny “time, place, and manner” test of United States v. O’Brien. At issue is whether the school district’s speech policy should be evaluated under Tinker’s “substantial disruption” standard or under O’Brien’s intermediate scrutiny.
Cato, joined by three groups that promote religious liberty, filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the case because the Fifth Circuit’s approach permits schools to enforce sweeping speech codes by which virtually all speech may be prohibited. Permitting a wholesale content- and viewpoint-neutral ban on all speech or a form of speech as an alternative to the Tinker standard will result in the erosion and eventual elimination of student speech rights.
The name of the case is Morgan v. Plano Independent School District; the Court will likely decide by the end of June whether to hear the case this fall.