Public School Cannot Prohibit Students from Distributing Religious Literature in Hallways Before School Starts

Can a public junior high school prohibit students from distributing religious literature in school hallways

Can a public junior high school prohibit students from distributing religious literature in school hallways before the start of each school day? This question was addressed by a federal district court in Pennsylvania.

The court concluded that the school, by permitting various student groups to meet on school property during noninstructional hours, had created a limited "public forum." Accordingly, the school could not restrict any group's speech on the basis of the content of the speech, unless the restriction was necessary to serve a "compelling state interest" and it was "narrowly drawn to achieve that end."

Banishing Christian students to "sidewalks and parking lots" violated the students' constitutional right of free speech, concluded the court, and was not supported by any compelling state interest. The court rejected the school's argument that the restrictions were necessary in order to avoid violating the nonestablishment of religion clause: "Accommodation … of a religious organization in accordance with a limited public forum does not constitute a state imprimatur on the particular religion involved."

The court emphasized that its conclusion "in no way affects [the school's] power to enforce reasonable time, place, and manner regulations" designed to insure that no student group materially interferes with the educational process or interferes with another person's rights.

Finally, the court rejected the students' claims that the "Equal Access Act" had been violated (it only addresses the right of students to engage in voluntary meetings on public school property during noninstructional hours), and that their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion had been abridged (the students were free to distribute literature and engage in evangelism in any public place, including the school parking lot). Thompson v. Waynesboro Area School District, 673 F. Supp. 1379 (M.D. Pa. 1987)

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