Judge Grants Peace Activists Access to Atlanta Schools

By Blake Rodman — September 10, 1986 3 min read

The Atlanta public schools violated the constitutional rights of a group of peace activists by denying them access to the city’s 22 high schools, a federal district judge has ruled.

School officials’ unwritten policy of barring the activists from school I campuses while granting access to military recruiters violated the activists’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech, U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob held on Aug. 13 in a partial ruling that was reached without a trial.

He ordered the schools to allow the activists an opportunity, “substantially equal to that afforded military recruiters,” to offer students information on peace-oriented careers and education programs.

Specifically, the judge said, the schools must permit peace groups to participate in career-day programs and to place literature on school bulletin boards and in guidance counselors’ offices.

He declined, however, to rule on the broader issue of whether peace activists have a right to enter schools to express their opinions on military service.

That issue, the judge wrote, “may be resolved after a more complete and thorough development of the facts at trial.”

Judge Shoob gave school officials 30 days to prepare a written policy on school access that conforms with the terms of his order.

A lawyer for the peace activists said last week that his clients-who had sought entry to the city’s high schools to counter military recruiting- are seeking to settle the remaining issues out of court.

U.S. Intervenes

The case dates from April 1984, when 10 peace activists and the Atlanta Peace Alliance charged in a suit that the school district, in denying them equal access to high-school campuses, had violated their constitutional right to freedom of speech.

In March 1985, the U.S. Justice Department, stating that it sought “to protect [the federal government’s] interest in preserving access to the public schools for military recruitment,” requested and received permission from the court to intervene in the case on the side of the district.

Justice Department officials and lawyers familiar with the case said at the time that the department had never intervened in a comparable school suit. (See Education Week, Dec. 11, 1985.)

In papers filed with the court, the department argued that military recruiters should have “preferred access” to the schools for “compelling” reasons of national defense.

Public Forum Created

In his decision, Judge Shoob held that by giving military recruiters access to school grounds, school officials had created a “public forum within the schools,” at least for the purpose of promoting career and educational opportunities. “‘The First Amendment does not prevent the board of education from limiting the use of school facilities solely to educational purposes,” Judge Shoob wrote. “If, however, the schools choose to open their doors to expression by outside groups and individuals, they must do so under principles that are consistent with the First Amendment.”

For the Atlanta schools to restrict access to a group when they have created a public forum, the judge said, they must show that the restriction was necessary to serve a compelling state interest and was narrowly drawn to achieve that end. The school system, Judge Shoob held, did neither.

The judge also noted “several flaws” in the Justice Department’s argument that military recruitment of high-school students would be jeopardized if the courts allowed peace groups access to public schools.

The department did not show that the schools would be likely to curtail military recruitment rather than to grant access to peace activists if required to do so, nor did it show that the military services lack other means of talking with high school students, the judge wrote.

''The mere convenience of contacting them at high schools is not a compelling state interest,” he said. Even if the court were to accept the department’s argument, Judge Shoob wrote, the schools’ policy still would not meet constitutional demands, because school officials “have not shown a compelling state interest for granting access to other nonmilitary organizations but not to [the] plaintiffs.”

Questions Remain

‘Tm very pleased with the decision,” said Ralph Goldberg, the lawyer representing the peace activists. But he said he is seeking a settlement with the district on the remaining issues.

"[The judge] has given us access, but the question that remains is, ‘How far does that access go?’ ” Mr. Goldberg said. “We can go into the schools and tell students about peace jobs and peace education, but we can’t say, ‘Don’t join the Army because you might die.’ ”

“Spokesmen for the school district and the Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling.

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 1986 edition of Education Week as Judge Grants Peace Activist Access to Atlanta Schools