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Pocono Mountain School District Appeals Case Banning Christmas Fliers in School

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Should students in elementary schools be permitted to distribute fliers to their classmates inviting them to a Christmas party at a church?  That question was up for debate in federal court in Pittsburgh today. 

In December 2010, the Barrett Elementary Center in the Pocono Mountain School District did not allow the 5th grade plaintiff, known as “K.A.” in the filing, to handout invitational fliers to a Christmas party to be held at the student’s church.

Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the district in March 2011, and two months later, a federal court decided the Pocono School District could not halt a student from distributing fliers that invite students to church parties or religious events.

The school district appealed, and in Wednesday's oral arguments, the district’s attorney, Keely Collins, said the fliers were not banned based on viewpoint.

“[The ban] was based upon the school districts application of policy,” Collins said. “We must keep out the advertisements of non-school organizations particularly from the elementary school to protect our children from all sorts of messages that are out there,” Collins said.

Collins added outside organizations should not be permitted to advertise to a “vulnerable” population.

“We’re not at all against the church or anything that it stands for, we’re not trying to restrict any viewpoint from the school at all,” Collins said.  “What we’re trying to do is do our best to protect the children.”

David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom said, based on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, students don’t shed their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate.

“Basically we were arguing that students have the right of free expression at school,” Cortman said, “especially if that’s religious speech."

The Tinker case involved teenage students protesting the Vietnam war by wearing a black armband in school.  The court decided to allow schools to prohibit speech if there is an extreme disruption in the institution’s daily operations, and in this case, the court found the armbands were not causing a disruption and allowed the students to go forth with the expression at school. 

Collins said Tinker case doesn’t apply to the school district’s argument because there would be no possibility of large disruption in the schoolhouse based upon a flyer that she said was intended to be taken from the schoolhouse and read in the community.

Tinker would essentially preclude school district review of any sort of non-school materials and we just can’t have that in school, particularly in our elementary school,” Collins said.

Cortman argued that the student’s First Amendment rights were stripped when the invitation to the Christmas party was barred.

“I think it’s clear that Tinker does apply,” Cortman said. “The reason is the speech in question is not what occurs at the church at the Christmas party, the speech is the invitation to go.”

Collins said the school district’s next steps are revising their policy, but they can’t do so until the court has reached a decision.

“We have to come up with some way to protect the kids from these messages, and at this point we’re looking at not allowing any outside fliers,” Collins said.