JUDGE UPHOLDS NORTHSIDE ISD STUDENT ID BADGES WITH TRACKING CHIP
Case citation: A.H. v. Northside ISD, __ F.Supp.2d __, 2013 WL 85604 (W.D. Tex. 2013).
Summary: A.H. is a student in the Northside Independent School District’s science and engineering magnet program, who objected to wearing a student identification badge equipped to track students’ whereabouts on campus. The student ID badges, known as Smart ID cards, contain a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip similar to those embedded in credit cards. The ID cards are part of a pilot program offered at the John Jay High School and Jones Middle School called the Smart ID Card Student Locator Project.
The pilot program required all students to carry the badges so that school staff can easily determine whether the student belonged on campus. The badges also can locate a student on campus in the event that they were missing or unaccounted for in an emergency. The badges do not work off campus. The district instituted the program to improve student safety and determine student attendance more efficiently. The Smart ID cards also allow students to check out library books, purchase meals in the cafeteria, and purchase tickets for extracurricular activities.
When A.H.’s parents received notice of the pilot program, the girl’s father objected on religious grounds. The father claimed that the Smart ID cards were the “mark of the beast” because they allowed the district to track A.H.’s whereabouts. In response to the father’s grievance, the administration offered to remove the chip from A.H.’s student badge as an accommodation to the family’s religious objections. The father did not accept that accommodation and requested that A.H. not be required to wear the ID badge, because it would indicate acquiescence or support for the program.
The district informed the family that if she did not want to wear the ID badge, even without the chip, she could return to her regular campus that did not implement the pilot program. However, if she wanted to remain at the John Jay High School campus, she would be required to wear the ID badge not equipped with the RFID chip.
The family sued the district claiming that the district violated A.H.’s First Amendment religious freedom and free speech rights, due process and equal protection rights, as well as her rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They sought an injunction barring enforcement of the ID requirement.
Ruling: The trial court denied the request for a preliminary injunction. The court found that school rules requiring the badges did not infringe on the student’s free exercise rights under the First Amendment. According to the court, “The District has a legitimate need to easily identify its students for purposes of safety, security, attendance and funding, and the requirement that all students carry a Smart ID badge is certainly a rational means to meet such needs.” Rejecting the student’s request to use her old badge from a different campus, the court observed that “uniformity of badges is important because campus administrators and others can determine, at a quick glance, that the person wearing the badge belongs on the campus.” Further, any burden on the student in wearing the Smart ID badge was removed when the district offered the student a badge without the RFID chip.
The court also held that requiring A.H. to wear the badge, even without the chip, did not violate the student’s free speech rights. The student claimed that doing so would amount to “compelled speech” by showing support for the pilot program. The court disagreed stating that, “Wearing a student ID badge is not expressive conduct that implicates the First Amendment. It is simply a means of identifying the person wearing it, and nothing more.”
With respect to claims under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the trial court observed that the statute specifically precludes a cause of action when the governmental entity offers an accommodation, as the district did in this case. According to the court, the district offered two alternative accommodations: (1) wear the Smart ID badge with the chip removed; or (2) transfer to her home campus, where she was not required to wear the Smart ID badge. The trial court held that those accommodations barred her claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The trial court also rejected A.H.’s Fourteenth Amendment due process claims. A.H. had no constitutionally protected property or liberty interest in attending school at a campus of her choosing. Nor did she have a protected interest in a specific curriculum, courses of her choice, or extracurricular activities. Thus, A.H.’s transfer to her home campus would not violate her due process rights.
Furthermore, there was no showing that A.H. was “singled out” in violation of her equal protection rights. Specifically, A.H claimed that she was subject to unequal treatment by having to stand in a different lunch line for those not carrying their Smart ID card. She also alleged that she was unable to check out books from the library easily, and was unable to vote for homecoming king and queen. According to the court, however, any inconvenience she experienced was “the result of Plaintiff’s own decision to refuse the Smart card. It is not the result of any action by the District, nor does it rise to the level of a constitutional violation.”
The court’s opinion in this case recognized that the school’s mandatory ID badges issued to all students, staff, and visitors further the school’s interest in providing a safe and secure environment for everyone on campus. According to the court, “In today’s climate, one would be hard pressed to argue that the safety and security of the children and educators in our public school system is not a compelling government interest.”
Things to Remember: This case has received national attention. The judge provides a thorough analysis of the First Amendment issues in the school context.