DALLAS — A suburban Dallas school district's rules regulating when students can hand out religious materials are constitutional, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the Plano school district’s regulations in its Dec. 1 decision in Morgan v. Plano Independent School District.
The rules, implemented in 2005, allow students to distribute materials before and after school, at three annual parties, during recess and at designated tables during school hours. Middle and high schoolers can also hand out items during lunch periods.
Those rules were adopted after four families with students at Plano schools sued, saying their children had been banned from handing out pencils saying "Jesus is the reason for the season," candy canes with cards describing their Christian origin, and other religious materials.
“Applying the time, place, and manner test, we conclude that the District’s 2005 Policy is reasonable and facially constitutional: the regulations at issue are content neutral and the District has a significant legitimate interest that is furthered by the regulations,” Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. “The regulations are aimed at providing a focused learning environment for its students.”
The policy before 2005 had been more restrictive and required materials to be submitted to the principal for review. The 5th Circuit sent claims referring to that policy back to the district court.
By siding with the district as to the 2005 rules, the 5th Circuit has restricted the students' rights to free speech, said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel at Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute, which represented the children's families. Previous standards had allowed students to express themselves as long as they didn't disrupt class and weren't lewd, Shackelford said.
"We're glad that the Plano ISD censorship of one kid handing a piece of literature to another friend is now going to be over. But we're sad that they are reducing free speech not only Plano but other schools," he said.
First Amendment Center Online staff contributed to this report.