Editor's note: On March 1, the Rutherford Institute said it would appeal the ruling against the teacher to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
RICHMOND, Va. — A federal judge has ruled that a southeastern Virginia school
district didn't violate a teacher's freedom of speech by removing
Christian-themed postings from his classroom walls.
U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith rejected arguments that York County
school officials deprived William Lee of his First Amendment rights when they
ordered the removal of postings that included articles about President Bush's
religious faith and former Attorney General John Ashcroft's prayer meetings with
"This case is not about what free-speech rights Lee has as an individual
expressing himself on private property," Smith wrote in her opinion filed last
week. "Rather, this case is a question about what free-speech rights Lee has as
a public school teacher-employee."
The postings were removed from Lee's Spanish classroom at Tabb High School at
the start of the 2004-05 school year after a parent complained. When asked in a
deposition why he featured Bush and Ashcroft, Lee responded: "I like them. I
respect and admire them. I feel that they're good guys."
Other materials taken down included a flier publicizing the National Day of
Prayer and a depiction of George Washington praying at Valley Forge.
Lee, who also advises Tabb's Christian student group, filed suit against the
school system in August, seeking an order to rehang the postings and leave them
up. He argued that his bulletin boards were a limited public forum open for
teachers' private expression and speech.
But Judge Smith, citing previous federal appeals court rulings, determined
that Lee's posters were part of his instructional tools and school curriculum,
subject to school review and not protected by the First Amendment.
The opinion also noted Principal Crispin Zanca's statement that the school
had discretion to remove a wide range of postings "regardless of whatever
expression or demonstration of personal interest they may possess."
"Moreover, news articles and current event articles are posted, but usually
only if they pertain to the teacher's subject matter, such as in a government or
history classroom," Smith wrote. "Consequently, Tabb simply has not given its
teachers freedom to express themselves in their classroom in any way they
A spokeswoman for the Rutherford Institute, the Christian-rights group that
argued on behalf of Lee, that it would discuss the case after staff members
reviewed the ruling. A telephone message left for Lee's attorney, Steve C.
Taylor, wasn't returned yesterday.
Posters that Zanca allowed to remain up in Lee's classroom included materials
about the religious practices of Inca and Mayan civilizations, a photo of Boy
Scouts praying in memory of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks, and an article and photo of an aircraft-carrier flight technician with
"Pray for America" written on his helmet.