Principals Found Immune from Liability for Restricting Student Religious Speech

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The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that two elementary school principals in Texas are immune from liability for allegedly preventing students from distributing religious gifts on school grounds. In Morgan v. Swanson, – the so-called “Candy Cane case” – a group of students and their parents alleged that the school principals violated the students’ First Amendment rights by prohibiting the students from distributing religious gifts on school grounds, including the distribution of candy cane-shaped pens attached with a Christian-based story about the history of the candy cane at a school-sponsored winter party. The court held that the principals were entitled to qualified immunity because the law surrounding students’ religious free speech rights is not clearly established. The qualified immunity doctrine protects government officials, including school officials, from liability for civil damages when their actions could reasonably have been believed to be legal. The court found that “no adequate guidance” exists for school administrators to assist them in trying to balance a student’s free speech rights with a district’s constitutional mandate to avoid endorsing religion. Because current law fails to provide any real, specific guidance to school officials on how to balance these competing constitutional issues, the court declined to hold the principals liable for prohibiting the students’ speech and therefore dismissed the case.

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