Federal court hears appeal on distributing fliers in school

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A student was barred by her school from passing out invitations to a birthday party that took place at her church, spurring a lawsuit that went before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pittsburgh for argument today.

The student, known in court filings as K.A., attended 5th grade at Barrett Elementary Center in the Pocono Mountain School District in 2010. She sought to distribute a flier printed by the Innovation Church, where she worshiped, inviting friends to her birthday party there. The district barred the flier, because it was unfamiliar with the church.

U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo, of the Middle District, granted an injunction a year ago allowing K.A. to distribute such invitations, and the district appealed.

Attorney Keely Collins, representing the district, told three appeals judges that schools need to "protect our school children from an influx of outside advertising" even if it is distributed through students. That's why the school adopted a policy in which the superintendent would approve or bar distribution of materials by students.

She said the school should have the power to say no to, say, a flier for an Aryan Nations event, especially in the elementary school.

"Should we say that elementary school students don't have the same rights as 12th graders, as 9th graders?" Judge Thomas Hardiman asked.

He said the school's policy giving the superintendent the power to bar fliers would "seem to invite content and viewpoint discrimination, which is anathema to the First Amendment." He did not see how the district could defend allowing invitations to a party at a bowling alley, but disallowing invitations to a church function.

Attorney David Cortman of the Alliance Defending Freedom, representing K.A., said that if the district allows one student to express a message through a flier or invitation, it must allow all students to do the same.

Judge Hardiman asked whether that would allow a student to pass out fliers for his father's landscaping company.

"Our position is that the students should be allowed to hand out fliers to other students during non-instructional times," regardless of the source or content of the fliers, Mr. Cortman said.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals decision on the case will govern district courts in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and the Virgin Islands. education - breaking - region

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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