Law & Courts

Supreme Court Lets Stand Religious-Tile Ban at Columbine

By Mark Walsh — January 22, 2003 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear an appeal by several parents of victims of the Columbine High School shootings who were barred from putting religious messages on ceramic tiles in the school’s hallways as part of a community art project.

The court’s action came in a busy week in which it also declined to hear appeals in several other school cases and upheld Congress’ expansion of federal copyright protection.

After the April 1999 violence in which two student gunmen killed 12 students and one teacher as well as themselves, Columbine administrators decided to allow parents and other community members to paint ceramic tiles to be affixed to the school’s hallways. They saw it as a way to help students and parents cope with returning to the building in the 89,000-student Jefferson County, Colo., school district.

But parents of some of the victims were upset when administrators barred tiles painted with crosses or such messages as “4/20/1999 Jesus Wept.” Administrators said they did not want the tile project to be a memorial to the tragedy or its victims, at least overtly. Although they did allow some indirect references, such as teardrops, they also barred contributors from putting the date of the attack and the names or initials of students on tiles.

The parents sued the district, arguing that the prohibition violated their First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion. A federal district judge in Denver held that the ban on religious symbols was unconstitutional viewpoint-based discrimination.

But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, also in Denver, ruled 3-0 last year that the tile project was a form of school-sponsored speech.

“If the district were required to be viewpoint neutral in this matter, [it] would be required to post tiles with inflammatory and divisive statements, such as ‘God is Hate,’ once it allows tiles that say ‘God is Love,’” the court said.

The Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, which helped the parents appeal to the Supreme Court in Fleming v. Jefferson County School District (Case No. 02-732), argued that the federal appeals courts are divided about whether public schools may impose viewpoint-based restrictions on school-sponsored speech.

The court on Jan. 13 declined without comment to review the case.

Private Discipline

In separate action last week, the high court:

•Ruled 7-2 in Eldred v. Ashcroft (No. 01-618) to uphold a 1998 action by Congress to extend copyright protection by an additional 20 years in most cases. Internet publishers objected that the law would make it more difficult to place classic works of literature and art available to students online. But educational publishers joined others in the creative community in defending the copyright extension. (“Supreme Court Ponders Copyright Extension,” Oct. 16, 2002.)

•Refused to consider whether discipline administered by officials of a private high school against a student placed there by his public high school district under contract was subject to review under federal civil rights laws.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, ruled 2-1 last year that the Maine Central Institute was not acting with government authority when it suspended Zachariah Logiodice for classroom misbehavior. The 11th grader was attending the institute under a contract between the private school and School Administrative District No. 53, which does not have its own high school.

The high court declined without comment to hear the student’s appeal in Logiodice v. Maine Central Institute (No. 02-632).

•Declined to hear the appeal of a California man who was removed from a school board meeting after he dumped a bag of trash to illustrate litter that he said high school students were routinely leaving in his neighborhood.

David McMahon in 1996 laid out a tarp before the board of the Albany Unified School District before dumping the trash. Police officers were called, but they declined to arrest Mr. McMahon. Then-Superintendent Joe Dale Hudson made a “citizen’s arrest,” but no charges were ever filed.

Mr. McMahon sued the district and the superintendent for false arrest, but lost in several state courts. His Supreme Court appeal in McMahon v. Albany Unified School District (No. 02-743) argued that speakers at public meetings who do something subjecting them to arrest have a constitutional right to be asked to cease such conduct.

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