Thursday, January 31, 2013

Religious speech may be restricted at school-sponsored graduation ceremony

The Court of Appeals has ruled that an upstate New York school district had the right to censor a student's middle school graduation speech that included religious language.

The case is A.M. v. Taconic Hills Central School District, a summary order decided on January 30. It all started when the plaintiff's class was moving up from middle school to high school. She was allowed to deliver a brief speech at the school-sponsored ceremony. The final sentence of the speech said, “As we say our goodbyes and leave middle school behind, I say to you, may the LORD bless you and keep you; make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” The principal told A.M. to take out the religious reference, and she complied. Then she sued under the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court held 50 years ago that mandatory school prayer is unconstitutional. Over the years, that holding has been extended to prayer and religious statements at graduation ceremonies. Another line of cases (including the Hazelwood decision) gives school administrators discretion to control student speech in school-sponsored newspapers and events. The graduation ceremony was school sponsored, the Court of Appeals (Chin, Droney and Gleeson [D.J.]) says, in part because "the Ceremony was set to occur at a school-sponsored assembly, to take place in the school [auditorium], to which parents of the students were invited.” Had A.M. given the religious speech, reasonable observers would have believed that the school district had endorsed it. The lenient standard under Hazelwood thus governs this case.

The next question is whether the school's directive that A.M. edit out the religious message was reasonable under Hazelwood. It was, because it was a content-based restriction, which administrators can impose in order to avoid an Establishment Clause problem. The plaintiff argued that this was actually a viewpoint-based restriction, which the district cannot impose without a compelling interest. (The plaintiff has a better chance at victory in challenging a viewpoint restriction). But the Second Circuit says that defendants excluded a content-based "general subject matter" (religious speech) from the event rather than a viewpoint-based "prohibited perspective" restriction. In other words content-based restrictions exclude an entire arguably inappropriate subject matter (such as religion) while viewpoint-based restrictions narrow student dialogue or debate on an issue. It's a fine line, but one that makes all the difference in determining what school administrators can get away with.

This case raises a complex issue that consumes nine pages of analysis, an anomaly for summary orders. My guess is that the plaintiff will petition this case for Supreme Court review.


Dr. Jillian T. Weiss said...

Numbers 6:24-26 - not the New Testament, though of course it doesn't matter for purposes of the legal issue.

Second Circuit Civil Rights Blog said...

I fixed it.