The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit today upheld a temporary injunction against a school district that attempted to stop a fifth grader from distributing professionally developed invitations to a children's Christmas party sponsored by a local church.
In December of 2010, K.A. was a fifth grade student at Barrett Elementary Center in Pennsylvania. According to this young lady, she wanted the opportunity to share her religious faith with her fellow students. While students are normally allowed to distribute birthday party invitations, Valentine's, and other such material during instructional time, K.A. was informed by her teacher that her invitation to her church's Christmas party for children would need to be approved by the principal.
K.A's invitation was not a typical a elementary school invite though. It was a flyer printed by her church and stated the following...
Just for KIDS!
Friday, December 10th
Face Painting, Ping Pong,
Games, Prizes, Puppets, Music,
Snacks and more!
Admission and all activities are
BRING A FRIEND!
Following a review of the flyer, the principal informed the K.A.'s father that his daughter would not be able to distribute the invite. The father requested a written explanation for why his daughter had been denied the right to distribute the invitation. The school district, Pocono Mountain, provided the parent with a copy of Policy 913 which basically forbids commercial advertising in the school. Noncommercial material must "promote student interests primarily, rather than the special interests of any particular group."
The Third Circuit in analyzing this case, K.A. v. Pocono Mountain School District, framed the following questions:
This appeal presents the question of the extent to which Tinker applies in the elementary school context. In particular, this appeal raises the issue of whether the age-related developmental, disciplinary and educational concerns specific to elementary school students present the type of vital interests to school administration that render Tinker analysis inapplicable. This appeal also presents the question of whether forum analysis trumps Tinker when the elementary school student is distributing materials prepared by an outside organization.
Tinker is the leading case in First Amendment expression within schools. Under the Tinker standard, schools may regulate speech which substantially disrupts or would substantially disrupt the school environment. The Third Circuit supported a 2011 decision in the Fifth Circuit which held that Tinker indeed applies in elementary schools.
The court rejected the argument of the school district's attorneys that this case should be analyzed differently because the invitation came from the church rather than the student herself. The court argued that earlier decisions supported the idea that it was insignificant where the speech originated. The court here relied on Walz v. Egg Harbor Township Board of Education. The court noted that in Walz, although the child distributing "Jesus [Loves] The Little Children" pencils was in pre-K and that Dana Walz, his mother, appeared to have driven her son's activity and the litigation, this did not change the analysis of the case.
Bear in mind that this is not the final decision in this case. Being granted a preliminary injunction, as happened here, means that the party is likely to prevail, not that it is guaranteed. In its conclusion discussing the preliminary injunction, the court states, "...the injunction does not harm the School District more than denying relief would harm K.A."
Thanks to How Appealing for bringing my attention to this story.