Court: Principals Protected from First Amendment

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The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has ruled that school children do have First Amendment rights, but school principals can't be held responsible for violating them.

The case involved two principals in a Plano, Texas, school district who was accused of interferring with students religious liberties.

Four families sued the district in 2004, claiming 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.

The court decided 10-6 that the principals would not be held responsible and were immune from being accessed damages.

Writing for the majority opinion, Circuit Judge Fortunato P. Benavides ruled that existing court precedents have not established the constitutionality of the educators' actions "beyond debate."

"The law tasked them with maintaining the most delicate of constitutional balances: between students' free-speech rights and the Establishment Clause imperative to avoid endorsing religion. But it failed to provide any real, specific guidance on how to do so," Benavides wrote.

"No federal court of appeals has ever denied qualified immunity to an educator in this area. We decline the plaintiffs' request to become the first," he wrote.

A lower court had earlier ruled the district violated the students free speech rights.

"Two of the school officials filed an appeal, a special appeal. And they said 'Look, we should be immune from this lawsuit because in our view elementary school children are too young to have First Amendment rights,'" said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the Liberty Institute.

"'And, therefore, even if we did engage in religious discrimination against them, there's no recourse for them because they don't have any First Amendment rights,' so neither they nor their parents can do anything about it. And we just thought that's the most outrageous thing we've ever heard," he added.

The Liberty Institute is considering whether to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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