Student Well-Being

Law Update

February 19, 2003 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Brentwood Wins Latest Round In First Amendment Battle

Brentwood Academy, a powerhouse private school near Nashville, has scored a touchdown in its lengthy legal struggle with the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Authority. But the seesaw contest is far from the final gun.

A federal district judge in Nashville ruled last month that the athletic authority’s application of its anti-recruiting rule to Brentwood over a 1997 incident violated the private school’s First Amendment right of free speech.

At issue was a letter to 8th grade boys inviting them to a spring football practice. The boys had already agreed to enroll at the 600-student school the following fall. But under the athletic authority’s rules, the football coach could not communicate with them until they had attended the school for three days.

Brentwood, a perennial gridiron standout that was resented by some Tennessee public schools, was slapped with penalties that included exclusion from football and basketball playoffs for two years. The academy sued the Tennessee authority in 1997; the central issue was that the regulatory body’s rule against recruiting infringed on the school’s right of free speech.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2000-01 term on an important side issue: whether the athletic authority acted with government authority when it enforced its rules. The justices ruled 5-4 that the athletic group was in fact a “state actor,” and thus its actions were subject to constitutional scrutiny.

That was a major victory for Brentwood, but the school lost the next round, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held in 2001 that the rule against recruiting was not unconstitutional on its face. In December, the academy’s case finally went to trial in U.S. District Court in Nashville over whether the recruiting rule was unconstitutional as applied to the 1997 Brentwood letter about spring football practice. Both sides brought in a number of expert witnesses, such as school choice advocates, scholars in sports ethics, and former congressman and basketball pro Tom McMillen.

On Jan. 13, U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell ruled in Brentwood’s favor. The judge said the association had legitimate reasons for its rule against recruiting, such as preventing the exploitation of student athletes. But the letter was “harmless informational speech about a permitted athletic practice,” he said.

The authority’s application of its rule held up even less, in the judge’s view, in light of the fact that the rule allows public high schools to communicate with students in its feeder middle schools.

“There is no legitimate reason to permit speech in a feeder pattern but prohibit the same speech by Brentwood Academy to its incoming students,” the judge said.

Ronnie Carter, the authority’s executive director, said last week that the decision has been appealed to the 6th Circuit court. The ruling undermines the association’s recruiting rule and puts “federal judges, not educators, in the position of deciding what is best for school sports,” he said.

Waldorf Schools

A federal appeals court last week reinstated a lawsuit that challenges several public Waldorf schools as violations of the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion.

People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools, a group in Grass Valley, Calif., sued two California school districts in 1998 in federal district court in Sacramento. The 53,000-student Sacramento city system operates a magnet school using Waldorf methods, while the 1,800-pupil Twin Ridges Elementary School District has sponsored seven charter schools based on the approach.

Waldorf education, founded in Germany in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner, stresses the arts and incorporates storytelling and the reading of myths and legends. Critics, including People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools, contend that Waldorf education is closely connected to a spiritual movement known as “anthroposophy,” which they view as a New Age religion. (“The Spirit of Waldorf Education,” June 20, 2001.)

People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools argues that the two districts’ support of Waldorf schools amounts to a government establishment of religion. The Sacramento district, for example, provided $188,580 in government funds to the John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School. The school’s teachers also received training in Waldorf methods from Rudolph Steiner College, the suit said.

The federal district court ruled last year that People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools lacked legal standing to challenge the Waldorf schools. The group could not show that the district’s adoption of the Waldorf philosophy required additional funding above normal operating expenses, the district court held.

But in its Feb. 10 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, unanimously reinstated the suit.

The plaintiff organization was not limiting its challenge to a particular program, the appeals court said, but was arguing that the comprehensive curriculum of the schools was permeated by a religious philosophy. That was sufficient to give the group taxpayer standing to challenge the program under the establishment clause, the court said.

—Mark Walsh

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Law & Courts Webinar
Future of the First Amendment:Exploring Trends in High School Students’ Views of Free Speech
Learn how educators are navigating student free speech issues and addressing controversial topics like gender and race in the classroom.
Content provided by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being What the Research Says Are Children Getting to Bed on Time? Here's What New Data Show
A CDC study finds that more than 1 in 4 children in poverty don't have set bedtimes on school nights.
2 min read
Image of reading at bedtime.
Student Well-Being Bipartisan Bill Would Extend School Nutrition Flexibility, But Not Universal Free Meals
The proposal would help nutrition workers navigate supply-chain issues, inflation, and staffing shortages affecting school meal programs.
3 min read
Carl Hall, 8, drinks apple juice he received as part of a free bagged breakfast at the Jefferson County Upper Elementary School on March 3, 2021 in Fayette, Miss.
Carl Hall, 8, drinks apple juice he received as part of a free bagged breakfast at the Jefferson County Upper Elementary School on March 3, 2021 in Fayette, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Student Well-Being Thousands of Students Will Face Long COVID. Schools Need to Plan Now
The issue is not yet on most educators' radar screens, but should be.
7 min read
Illustration of a young boy holding his hands against his temples with his eyes close. Clouds and virus pathogens circling around him.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being Really Listening to Students Has an Academic Payoff, New Research Finds
When students see their schools as "responsive" to their feedback, they are likely to have better grades and attendance, new research finds.
5 min read
Arial view of people sitting on chairs in a circle with a listening ear in the center.
Collage by Gina Tomko/Education Week and Getty