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Sex Talk Upheld

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A Massachusetts high school's decision to hire a company to give its students a streetwise, extremely explicit talk on AIDS prevention without notifying parents may not have been a wise one, but it didn't violate the right of parents to direct their children's upbringing, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In 1992, Chelmsford High School officials hired a company called Hot, Sexy, and Safer Productions Inc. to deliver a 90-minute program to two mandatory assemblies. According to court documents, students were told the presentation would "talk about AIDS, but not in the usual way.'' The presenter took a comedic approach that included sexually explicit skits and references to masturbation, condoms, and homosexuality. The program also included dialogue with students. One boy was asked to display his "orgasm face.''

A district physician had screened a promotional video by the company and had recommended the program to administrators. But school officials later admitted that the presentation went too far.

The parents of two 15-year-old boys sued the company, the school board, and school officials, claiming the presentation violated, among other things, their privacy rights and their right to "direct and control the upbringing of their children.'' The suit also charged that school officials failed to obtain parental permission for a lesson on human sexuality, as required under school board policy.

A federal district judge dismissed the suit, and that ruling was affirmed by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit. The opinion by Chief Circuit Judge Juan Torruella states that although U.S. Supreme Court rulings have given parents a right to control their children's upbringing, that right does not "encompass a broad-based right to restrict the flow of information in the public schools.''

"If all parents had a fundamental constitutional right to dictate individually what the schools teach their children,'' the judge wrote, "the schools would be forced to cater a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school's choice of subject matter.'' Chelmsford High's failure to obtain parental permission may have displayed "a certain callousness,'' the court said, but it was not a legal or constitutional violation.

The circuit court also rejected arguments that the presentation was a form of sexual harassment or a violation of the parents' right to free exercise of religion.

The families' lawyers, including the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, have said they will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

--Mark Walsh

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