First Amendment Lawsuits and Schools

By Rozlyn Fulgoni-Britton and Amy Steketee

While courts have consistently recognized the broad authority of school boards to design a curriculum that reflects the community’s values, that authority is not unlimited. The parameters for that authority have been drawn through legal challenges brought by parents and teachers typically alleging violations of one or more of the following provisions in the First Amendment:

• Courts have interpreted the Establishment Clause to prohibit a public school from promoting, endorsing, or otherwise “establishing” any specific religion (or religion in general).

• Under the Free Exercise Clause, public schools are prohibited from restricting an individual’s ability to practice his or her religion.

• Under the Free Speech Clause, speech (or conduct that may be construed as speech) that is made in the performance of official duties or occurs in nonpublic forums (such as classrooms) may be subject to reasonable regulations by the school district.

Whether a parent alleges certain components of the curriculum promote a particular religion, a student alleges a curricular activity infringes on his or her right to exercise religious beliefs, or a teacher alleges the free speech clause protects her right to select classroom materials, methods, and topics, these challenges often find their way to the courts and nearly always implicate the First Amendment. Several recent cases illustrate the limits of school board and administrator authority in regulating curricular matters.

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