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Distribution of Religious Material



Editor’s Note: This is the latest ruling in longstanding litigation in Plano ISD.  The decision summarized below is limited to a discussion of whether the elementary school principal was entitled to qualified immunity from claims that the principal prohibited the student’s father to distribute religious material to other adults at his son’s in-class winter party.

Case citation:   Morgan v. Swanson, __ F.3d __, 2014 WL 1316929 (5th Cir. 2014).

Summary:  The parents of a third-grade student in the Plano Independent School District filed suit, claiming that in December of 2003, the student’s father, Doug Morgan, attended an in-class winter party with his son, Jonathan.  As part of the traditional student gift exchange, the student intended to distribute candy canes bearing a religious message.  Principal Lynn Swanson, however, told the Morgans that religious material would not be permitted in the third-grade classroom.  After confirming this policy with district administrators, Swanson suggested that they place the materials on an “information table” where other families could pick up the material and take it home.  She later announced that all materials—religious or otherwise—were prohibited from the classroom, but the Morgans noticed that the other students were allowed to exchange gifts.

The Morgans filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of the student’s First Amendment rights. The Fifth Circuit, sitting en banc, first held that Principal Swanson unconstitutionally discriminated against the student on the basis of viewpoint when she did not allow the student to distribute his gifts.  The Court, nevertheless, granted Swanson qualified immunity, finding relevant law too “abstruse” and “complicated” for Swanson to have known how to handle the situation.

Morgan, the parent, also asserted that he, too, experienced viewpoint discrimination when Principal Swanson told him not to distribute the religious material to other consenting adults in the classroom.  The trial court dismissed the claim after finding that Swanson was entitled to qualified immunity. The parent appealed the trial court decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ruling:  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s grant of qualified immunity to the principal.  The Fifth Circuit observed that “educators are entitled to immunity unless ‘no reasonable official’ would have deemed the disputed conduct constitutional.” The Court’s review of existing law revealed that “educators are nearly always immune from liability arising out of First-Amendment disputes.  The rare exceptions involve scenarios in which there exists a precedent precisely on point.”  In this case, there was no legal authority that clearly established the rights asserted by the parent.

Morgan argued that his right to distribute religious material was clearly established because “regardless of forum, viewpoint discrimination regarding private speech is unconstitutional.”  According to the Court, although the assertion was generally true, “such a broad generalization is exactly the kind of proposition that will not suffice for the purposes of qualified immunity analysis, as it simply does not provide the official with any sense of what is permissible under a certain set of facts.”

In an effort to establish a “clearly established right,” Morgan pointed to Chiu v. Plano Indep. Sch. Dist., 260 F.3d 330 (5th Cir. 2001), which dealt with after-school meetings whose express purpose was to allow adults to discuss mathematics instruction. In that case, the Fifth Circuit held that, regardless of whether the meetings were properly classified as a public forum or limited public forum, school officials could not prohibit the plaintiffs from distributing material related to certain curriculum options. In response to Morgan’s argument, the Court stated that, “while Chiu may indeed be relevant in discerning the nature and extent of Morgan’s rights in the classroom, the case does not itself establish those rights, and its radically different factual context renders Chiu incapable of providing any meaningful guidance to an educator trying to handle First Amendment concerns arising out of a third-grade party.”   The Fifth Circuit, therefore, held that Morgan had not demonstrated a “clearly established right” to distribute the materials under the facts presented here and, therefore, the principal was entitled to qualified immunity.

Comments:   The “candy cane” case is now over 11 years old, with no end in sight.