First Amendment

4th Circuit rules for school that nixed child's essay on acceptance of transgender people

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A federal appeals court has ruled for an elementary school that removed a 10-year-old girl's essay on acceptance of transgender people from an essay collection placed in the classroom and distributed to parents.

In a March 2 opinion, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Richmond, Virginia, said the South Carolina school and its principal had properly exercised their authority to regulate school-sponsored student speech.

Courthouse News Service covered the decision.

The girl had written: “I don’t know if you know this but peoples view on tran’s genders is an issue. People think that men should not drees like a women, and saying mean things. They think that they are choosing the wrong thing in life. In the world people can choose who they want to be not being told that their diction is wrong. I hope people understand that people can hurt themselves from others hurting their feelings. People need to think before they speak because one word can hurt someone’s feelings. We need to fix this because this is getting out of hand!”

The school principal ordered the essay to be removed, allegedly telling the girl’s mother that it was age-inappropriate and would make other parents upset. The girl submitted a revised essay that called for an end to bullying. The principal later relented and agreed to publish both essays, but the mother decided she didn’t want either essay published because of concerns about her daughter’s privacy.

The girl’s mother filed a lawsuit on behalf of herself and her daughter for an alleged violation of the First Amendment. The defendants were the principal, the Anderson Mill Elementary School in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, and the school district.

The appeals court said the principal had qualified immunity from the suit as a result of a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The decision found no constitutional violation when a school district refused to publish articles about divorce and teenage pregnancy in the school newspaper.

“This case falls neatly within the Hazelwood framework,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote in her opinion for the 4th Circuit panel. Thacker is an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

The school district was also protected, Thacker wrote, because the principal had not violated the child’s First Amendment rights.

The girl’s mother had also argued that the principal’s decision constituted impermissible viewpoint discrimination. Thacker noted that other circuits are split on the question of whether restrictions on school-sponsored student speech must be viewpoint neutral under Hazelwood.

“We need not pick a side in this debate today,” Thacker wrote, because the principal’s decision was viewpoint neutral. The principal was averse to any kind of essay on LGBTQ rights, rather than the content of the girl’s essay, Thacker said.

Thacker’s opinion was joined by Judges J. Harvie Wilkinson and Paul Niemeyer, both appointees of former President Ronald Reagan.

The case is Robertson v. Anderson Mill Elementary School.

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