Two years ago, “International Burn A Koran Day” pastor Terry Jones’ church distributed shirts emblazoned “ISLAM IS OF THE DEVIL” to many of the school-aged members of his church. The students were subsequently sent home when they wore these offensive shirts to school.
Unfortunately, this incident also sparked a lengthy — and no doubt costly — lawsuit. Nevertheless, a recent federal district court opinion held that the school was entirely within its rights to send these children home:
School facilities are not public forums and speech within them may be regulated consistent with “legitimate pedagogical
concerns.” […] In regulating speech, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained that “school officials are on their most solid footing when they reasonably fear that certain speech is likely to appreciably disrupt the appropriate discipline in the school.” […]
“Islam is of the Devil” presents a highly confrontational message. It is akin to saying that the religion of Islam is evil and that all of its followers will go to hell. The message is not conducive to civil discourse on religious issues; nor is it appropriate for school generally. “Part of a public school’s mission must be to teach students of differing races, creeds and colors to engage each other in civil terms rather than in terms of debate highly offensive or highly threatening to others.”
As the opinion explains, the shirts did indeed cause very real disruptions to the school’s learning environment. In one rather delightful example of middle school justice, a group of eighth grade students broke out into a chant of “we love Islam” to confront a student wearing the offensive shirt. In another, less delightful incident, a student told one of the shirt wearers that “my friend is a Muslim, and he’s going to kill you.”
This decision will be appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which, unfortunately, has a history of placing conservative dogma ahead of well-settled law. Nevertheless, the law is quite clear that schools do have the authority to prevent students from disrupting their learning environment, so the district court’s decision is likely to be upheld.
[HT: Eugene Volokh]