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Court Upholds Rutherford Institute Case

By Editorial Staff
Published January 2, 1988

Reiterating that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech … at the schoolhouse gate,” a U.S. district court on December 4, l987, ordered Pennsylvania school officials to allow three students to distribute a religious newspaper in their junior high school.

“Free speech is one of the most protected clauses in the Constitution,” said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute and one of the attorneys who successfully defended the students. The Virginia-based nonprofit organization specializes in the defense of religious groups and individuals.

Bryan Thompson, Marc Shunk and Christopher Eakle, currently ninth-graders at Antietam Junior High School in Waynesboro, were suspended two years ago when they passed out copies of Issues and Answers in the school hallways before class. Issues and Answers is a free monthly newspaper published by Student Action for Christ.

The three students and their parents, represented by Rutherford attorney Larry Crain, later sued the Waynesboro school district, charging infringement of their First Amendment rights.

While school officials may lawfully impose “content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions” on students’ free speech activities, Judge Sylvia Rambo stated that testimony by Antietam principal Robert Mesaros “indicates that the religious content of the paper definitely influenced” the decision to ban its distribution. Mesaros admitted in his deposition that he feared some parents would object to their children’s exposure to the newspaper.

Judge Rambo, however, quoting from a 1969 Supreme Court ruling, pointed out that banning “a particular expression of opinion” had to be justified by “something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

Judge Rambo’s November 24 opinion rejected the school district’s claim that permitting students to hand out Issues and Answers would imply that the school endorsed religion, in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The judge reasoned that since administrators already permitted other student clubs to meet in the school, “passive accommodation of one more group that was organized on the basis of religious interest would not have the effect of advancing religion.” The students would simply be allowed “to avail themselves” of the limited public forum set up by the school “to promote the intellectual and social development of its students,” Rambo stated.

School officials are expected to appeal the court’s decision, but Rutherford attorneys expressed confidence that the ruling will hold up. “Judge Rambo provided a thorough analysis of the free speech issue,” Whitehead said, “and it gives good grounds for success on appeal.”


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