May students distribute religious or political literature at school?
Yes. Generally, students have a right to distribute religious or political literature on public school campuses, subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. This means that the school may specify at what times the distribution may occur (e.g., during lunch hour, or before or after classes begin), where it may occur (e.g., outside the school office), and how it may occur (e.g., from fixed locations as opposed to roving distribution). These restrictions should be reasonable and must apply evenly to all nonschool student literature.1
Public school officials may insist on screening all student materials prior to distribution to ensure the appropriateness for a public school. Any such screening policy should provide for a speedy decision, a statement of reasons for rejecting the literature, and a prompt appeals process.
Because the speech rights of students are not coextensive with those of adults, schools may prohibit the distribution of some types of student literature altogether. Included in this category would be materials that
- would likely cause substantial disruption of the operation of the school. Literature that uses fighting words or other inflammatory language about students or groups of students would be an example of this type of material.
- violate the rights of others. Included in this category would be literature that is libelous, that invades the privacy of others, or infringes on a copyright.
- are obscene, lewd, or sexually explicit.
- advertise products that are illegal for minors, such as alcohol.
- students would reasonably believe to be sponsored or endorsed by the school. One recent example of this category was a religious newspaper that was formatted to look like the school newspaper.
Although school officials have considerable latitude in prohibiting the distribution of materials that conflict with their educational mission, schools may not generally ban materials based solely on content. Similarly, schools should not allow a "heckler's veto" by prohibiting the distribution of materials simply because they are unpopular or controversial. If Christian students are allowed to distribute their newsletters, for example, Buddhists, Muslims, and others must be given the same privilege.2
Hedges v. Wauconda Community Sch. Dist., 9 F.3d 1295 (7th Cir. 1993).
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 | 10:24:38