Judge OKs removal of teacher's Christian-themed posters

By The Associated Press

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 his staffers.

"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 please."

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.