(CN) – Elementary school students are protected from religious discrimination under the right to free speech, the 5th Circuit ruled, so long as they are not disrupting classroom education.
Parents of elementary school students sued the principles of two elementary schools, alleging their children suffered first amendment violations when they were stopped from distributing pencils and other gifts with Christian phrases like “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” to their schoolmates in goodie bags.
The schools’ policy prohibited students from passing out religious materials or gifts bearing religious messages.
The district court ruled in favor of the students’ right to free speech. Principals Lyn Swanson of Thomas Elementary School and Jackie Bomchill of Rasor Elementary appealed, arguing that they qualified for immunity.
The three-judge appeals panel for the 5th Circuit ruled that “Qualified immunity does not provide officials with a license to engage in lawless conduct.”
The panel supported the denial of the principals’ request to dismiss the suit and adopted the district court’s opinion that a child’s right to freedom of expression is not forfeited simply because of age.
The principals argued that “neither the Supreme Court nor this Court has ever extended first amendment ‘freedom of speech’ protection to the distribution of non-curricular materials in public elementary schools.”
But in the panel’s ruling, Judge Jennifer Elrod wrote, “They are wrong. The Supreme Court has long recognized that public school students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”