Court Overturns School Policy

Thursday, February 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — A federal appeals court overturned a school district's sweeping anti-harassment policy, saying the guidelines violate the free speech rights of students.

The suit had been brought on behalf of two State College Area School District students who wanted to express their view that homosexuality is a sin.

In its ruling Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the district went too far when it prohibited harassment based on everything from race and sexual orientation to ``other personal characteristics,'' including clothing, appearance and social skills.

Experts said the ruling could force hundreds of school districts to reassess their own policies to ensure they comply with the ruling.

While the court acknowledged the district has a compelling interest in promoting a safe and conducive learning environment, it said officials failed to explain why it anticipated disruption ``from the broad swath of student speech prohibited under the policy.''

Judge Samuel A. Alito wrote that the policy, enacted in August 1999, ``appears to cover substantially more speech than could be prohibited'' under existing U.S. Supreme Court precedents.

A school may categorically ban ``lewd, vulgar or profane language'' and may regulate speech to meet a ``legitimate pedagogical concern,'' he wrote. But other speech may be limited ``only if it would substantially disrupt school operations or interfere with the rights of others.''

David Warren Saxe, a Penn State University assistant professor and member of the state board of education, sued the district in October 1999 on behalf of two students, for whom he is legal guardian.

``They believe, and their religion teaches, that homosexuality is a sin,'' the suit said. ``Plaintiffs further believe that they have a right to speak out about the sinful nature and harmful effects of homosexuality.''

Saxe argued that rules were already in place that prohibited violence and other physical harassment.

``What this policy was about is the content of somebody's speech,'' Saxe said, ``and it chilled the First Amendment rights of every child in that school, every teacher, every visitor.''

The appeals court ruling overturned a lower court. The U.S. District Court had rejected Saxe's suit, saying harassing speech has never been protected under the free speech protection of the First Amendment.

Rulings by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals are binding over federal judges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands.

Superintendent Patricia Best said she was disappointed with the decision, but had not had a chance to review it with other district officials or with the district's attorneys. She said she didn't know whether the district would appeal.

One expert told The Philadelphia Inquirer in Thursday's editions that the ruling could have a sweeping impact.

``I don't know how many school districts have policies as broad as State College's, but it is probably a significant number,'' said Michael I. Levin, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.


On the Net:

Text of court ruling,

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