A South Carolina school district that used newsletters, e-mail, and its Web site to drum up opposition to a tuition-tax-credit bill in the state legislature faces a lawsuit claiming it committed “viewpoint discrimination” against a resident who was denied the use of the same outlets to air his views.
In papers filed Jan. 24 in federal district court in Columbia, S.C., Randall S. Page says District One in Lexington County rejected his requests to use what he calls its “information-distribution system” to support a tax-credit bill that the legislature considered last year.
Mr. Page, a resident of the 19,000-student district, is the president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a watchdog group that supported the bill, which ultimately failed.
He argues that the publicly funded communication methods constitute a “limited public forum,” and notes that the district allowed other opponents of the bill, who were not district employees, the use of that forum for their views.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the district unconstitutionally deprived him of his First Amendment right to free speech.
“I don’t think they’ve created any sort of a forum, and therefore they are not engaged in viewpoint-based discrimination,” David T. Duff, the Columbia-based lawyer for the Lexington One district, said of his client last week. He planned to file a reply to the lawsuit this week.
Mr. Duff said that if the lawsuit succeeded, the effect might be to scuttle advocacy by school districts, “at least not without giving opposing views equal time, which to me as a practical matter is rather difficult to conceive.”
A district taking a position on legislation to educate children with disabilities, for example, might have to open up communications tools to parents with opposing views, he said.
Paul Krohne, the executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association, which opposes tuition tax credits, called the lawsuit “just a harassment tactic” by a political opponent.
But Charles C. Haynes, a legal expert at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said there may be grounds for the lawsuit. “For First Amendment purposes, a school district—when it does open up its [facilities] to express a view of a public-policy issue—they have in fact a responsibility, if not an obligation, to allow other people to use it.”