Cobb County update

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For those following the Cobb County disclaimer case, the law firm handling the case has informed me that trial has been set for November 8. (Court dates are, of course, always subject to change.)

18 Comments

More goofy examples of conservative evangelical christian creationists at “work,” in our public schools:

http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/10/29/f[…]p/index.html

LIVERPOOL, New York (AP) – A fourth-grader and her mother claim a school district violated the girl’s constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection by refusing to allow her to distribute “personal statement” fliers to other students because they carried a religious message.

According to the lawsuit, the school district near Syracuse repeatedly denied Martin’s requests for Michaela to pass out a homemade “personal statement” flier to other students at Nate Perry Elementary School.

The flier, about the size of a greeting card, starts out: “Hi! My name is Michaela and I would like to tell you about my life and how Jesus Christ gave me a new one.” The flier mentions five ways in which Jesus had come into her life.

“This is nothing less than viewpoint discrimination,” said Mat Staver, an attorney and executive director of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Florida-based conservative legal group that is representing Bloodgood.

According to the lawsuit, Liverpool officials said Michaela could not distribute it because her flier was religious and that there was “a substantial probability” that other parents and students might misunderstand and presume that the district was “endorsing” the religious statements in the flier.

“The idea that people would think the district was endorsing Michaela’s statements is simply absurd. Schools do not endorse everything they allow students to distribute,” Staver said.

It would be interesting if this case involved a student handing out a pamphlet teaching ID nonsense, which was then used by a student to raise questions in biology class, followed by a concise disembowelment by the teacher of the concept that ID is science.

Does anyone doubt that the parent of this child would complain that her child’s “viewpoint” was being “discriminated against” by the teacher?

Bloody hypocrites.

I strongly disagree. If the facts are as this report says, there is a very good argument that the school is violating Ms. Bloodgood’s constitutional right to freedom of speech. In Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the Supreme Court held that students in public schools have a right to free speech, and that schools may not bar students from expressing themselves, unless that expression is disruptive to the school environment. I seriously doubt that Ms. Bloodgood is disrupting the school by handing out such fliers, particularly since, according to this story, she intended to pass out these flyers during non-instructional periods of the day.

Great White Wonder’s irrationally extreme contempt for religious people frequently leads him to declare that their constitutional rights should not be respected. I do not believe this is a view that most defenders of evolution share, or that most atheists share, and I very much hope that readers of this blog will not construe his posts as representative of our position.

Wonder also says that “if this case involved a student handing out a pamphlet teaching ID nonsense, which was then used by a student to raise questions in biology class, followed by a concise disembowelment by the teacher of the concept that ID is science,” that “the parent…would complain that her child’s ‘viewpoint’ was being ‘discriminated against.’” Perhaps. And if so, the parent would be wrong. But that is not even close to the situation we have here. Anyone has the right to criticize a pamphlet when it’s handed to him. But the government may not forbid the passing out of pamphlets in the first place (unless it’s disruptive to school activity). If the school prohibited the student from passing out the pamphlet to begin with, that student would be correct to complain of a violation of the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects everybody’s right to publicize faulty arguments, even in public schools.

Timothy Sandefur:

Does it make a difference that the pamphlet is only handed out during non-instructional periods? Would it make a difference if this led to clear disruption during subsequent classroom instruction? If it did, how might this be established? How does the school make it clear that by permitting or codoning the activity, they are not endorsing the message? Is that important?

It seems nearly overwhelmingly self-evident that this girl is acting as a proxy for a parent who qualifies (at the very least) as pushy and aggressive, and is following parental instructions. Does it matter whose speech is protected at the school, or must the law presume this girl is acting independently? Is there any legal distinction between speaking and soliciting? If someone with a competing message (or many such people with many messages) went into competition during these non-instructional periods, would the school be justified in prohibiting the practice on different grounds? I’m glad I’m not a lawyer.

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Thanks, that’s pretty clear.

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GWW:

If I understand the legalities correctly, your anti-Christian competitive message would be guaranteed to touch off a small riot, at the explicit instruction to CAUSE a riot on the part of the Christian parents. Now, the law says your message can be prohibited if it “materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school”, a circumstance that would be promptly engineered.

I’m reminded of the child who was told to stop pulling the cat’s tail, and replied “I’m just holding the tail, the cat is doing all the pulling!” According to Timothy’s law, the cat is guilty. Christians are nothing if not politically savvy. If they can’t push their views onto others, their freedoms are being denied. If you push back, YOU are causing “material interference” - and they will make DAMN certain you are. Manipulating the letter of the law to violate its spirit is why lawyers exist.

What you’re doing is showing that the religious people are always pushing, pushing, pushing for everything they can get away with, and then pushing for a little bit more, and then claiming persecution when they reach the limit and aren’t allowed to push any further. And if anyone else tries to defend themselves, the Christians SCREAM, and the law supports them, since those “causing” the screaming are guilty of “material interference with the requirements of discipline.” It’s a game.

Still, I’m curious how the Cobb County case turns out.

Great White Wonder says

Religious tracts … are inherently derogatory to anyone who does not share the flyer distribut[o]r’s religious views . …[Therefore] handing out fundamentalist religious tracts in a public school is disruptive to public schooling per se.

This is a clumsy argument for censorship. Tinker, Hazelwood, and other cases have upheld the government’s authority to regulate the manner in which students express themselves, but the First Amendment does not permit the government, in any context, to declare that because a viewpoint is “inherently derogatory” to those who disagree with that viewpoint (and what viewpoint isn’t?) that it may be banned wholesale. I am an atheist. I have contempt for religion. Under Wonder’s view, I could have been prohibited from ever defending my views in my history class, when we talked about the Crusades. I am a libertarian. I have contempt for socialists. Under Wonder’s view, I could have been prohibited from ever defending libertarianism in my high school economics class (where, I’m happy to say, I was quite outspoken).

The First Amendment, at least, embodies the notion that an idea, so long as it is not presented in a disruptive manner, is practically never “disruptive per se,” due to its content. Hatred of particular races, for example, is entirely protected by the First Amendment (although particular forms of its expression, such as cross-burning, might not be). Declaring an idea to be “disruptive per se” due to its content, is an extraordinarily dangerous proposition, and certainly one which, if it were to be adopted, would quickly fall into the hands of people who would use it to suppress atheism, which is probably the most persecuted idea in the history of humanity.

The proper view is that expressed by Justice Brandeis—a view which once went by the name “liberal”—in his famous dissent in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375-76 (1927):

Those who won our independence … valued liberty both as an end and as a means . … They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine … They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law—the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed . … Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears. To justify suppression of free speech there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced … [and] that the danger apprehended is imminent … [and] serious . … [E]ven advocacy of violation [of the law], however reprehensible morally, is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy falls short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on.

How extremely ironic that Wonder would end his call for censorship by appealing to “the freedoms [secularism] alone can guarantee”! Yes, I agree that secularism alone can justify principles of freedom. But Wonder has provided us with one of the weakest arguments for that proposition that I have ever witnessed. His call for censorship betrays those principles. Far better is the view of Thomas Jefferson, no fundie himself:

[ I]t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg . … Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only . … Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter.

Now, Flint writes “Christians are nothing if not politically savvy. If they can’t push their views onto others, their freedoms are being denied.” Sadly, that’s an accurate observation. Religious conservatives make a great deal of political profit off of portraying themselves as victims. When school districts pull stunts like this, what upsets me most is that it adds fuel to their claims of being a persecuted minority—which they most assuredly are not! And it is also true that many religious conservatives believe that their right to expression includes forcing their opinions onto other people’s lifestyles. As I’ve written before, they think that if you tell them they must mind their own business, that you’re somehow robbing them of something. They are, of course, wrong about that. But in this case, they would appear to be right. This girl does have a Constitutionally protected right to express herself by handing out leaflets if she wishes, and if the government stops her, it is violating her rights. That much, at least, is not “a game,” nor is it “Timothy’s law.” It is, rather, the supreme law of the land, which declares “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . …”

Thanks for your two posts, Tim, and thanks for the discussion from everybody.

This is a very important issue. As Jefferson said, in different words, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and this is a lesson that students need to learn in school as well as in society at large. What I notice, in students in school and among adults also, is that people get mad at the expression of ideas with which they disagree, and then they react with anger, and the “discussion,” such as it is, spirals downhill from there. The resulting atmosphere makes everyone reluctant to speak up because the prospect for civil and constructive argument is so small.

In the case of this girl and her fliers, the girl should be prepared for (although this might be asking too much of fourth graders) children challenging her view - such as pointing out that they have different religious views (or none), or challenging her specific propositions about Jesus and Christianity.

Good schools, if they truly aspire to be learning communities, understand that the interactions among the students is part of the learning - not everything is a one-street from teacher to student, and would thus encourage students learning to express themselves and strive to teach students, by word and by example, that when you express yourself you need to be prepared to respond to disagreement with civility. From such experiences children might learn to both engage in civil discourse (rather than the divisive and dichotomous argumentation that we see so often) and to tolerate both disagreement and a diversity of opinion.

Well said. I think it’s terrible that people consider the merits of religion to be off-limits for discussion. In no other realm of life would it be considered wrong to challenge someone’s belief in a ridiculous proposition; if someone claimed to be entertained every night be green elephants tap-dancing on the front porch, you could say “Oh, come on, surely you don’t believe that!”–but when they claim that the holy spirit enters them when they consume a wafer on Sunday morning, it’s socially unacceptable to react with skepticism. The mores of skepticism, which have built a magnificent model society in the scientific world, still have a long way to go.

Would Mr. Staver and his Liberty Counsel be involved if this were a case of a Muslim child handing out religious material? Or a Hindu? Or a Buddhist? Or a Wiccan? Or a Satanist? Or any faith other than an evangelical Christian sect? Perhaps, but I seriously doubt it.

IMHO, the reason these types of propagandizing should not be allowed during the school day (besides that pesky church-state argument) is simple: which religions do you permit and which do you bar? What’s to prevent all or some of the above-mentioned faiths to insist on their points of view being distributed?

Far-fetched? I don’t think so. No doubt I will be criticized, however, as some sort of anti-religious bigot…which seems to be the response du jour from evangelicals…

From a legal point of view, if you allow an opportunity for one, you must offer the same for opportunity for all. If a student wanted to hand out “Why I am a Wiccan,” or “Why I am Not a Christian” fliers, he or she wuold have to have the same rules applied as the girl handing out the Jesus fliers. That’s the price we pay for free speech.

I don’t know, of course, whether Liberty Counsel would be involved if Ms. Bloodgood were a Muslim or Wiccan. I’d be surprised. But consistency would require it. And Mr. Bolter is right to ask whether anything would prevent all of the various religions from insisting on their points of view being distributed. But let us be clear: Ms. Bloodgood is not “insit[ing] on [her] point of view being distributed.” Rather, she is insisting that the government must not interfere when she tries to distribute her point of view. There is an essential difference between these two. The state is legally prohibited from distributing a religious point of view, under the Establishment Clause. But it is also legally prohibited from interfering when a private person seeks to distribute a point of view, under the Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Free Press Clauses.

Ms. Bloodgood does have a right to be free from interference when she seeks–in a non-disruptive manner–to distribute her point of view. And, as Mr. Krebs correctly states, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, atheists, and all advocates of all other points of view have the identical right, fortunately.

Ms. Bloodgood does have a right to be free from interference when she seeks—in a non-disruptive manner—to distribute her point of view. And, as Mr. Krebs correctly states, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, atheists, and all advocates of all other points of view have the identical right, fortunately.

You noticed what I wrote, but don’t seem able (or inclined?) to apply it. Bs. Bloodgood’s leaflet campaign is non-disruptive because those around here ALLOW it to be non-disruptive. As I wrote earlier, “the law says your message can be prohibited if it “materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school”, a circumstance that would be promptly engineered.” Do youi have even the slightest doubt that the community Christians would engineer a discipline problem as soon as “advocates of other points of view” attempted to exercise “identical rights”? Of course, the leaflets of others would be banned on discipline grounds rather than speech grounds, and you cited a case showing that the school was empowered to make such a decision.

I can assure you that here in Alabama, the school officials woulod almost surely “suggest” such a tactic (albeit in a deniable manner) if the Christian parents didn’t adopt it on their own, and would be extremely quick to determine that discipline was threatened.

So don’t tell me this isn’t a game. The entire episode would play out legally, but other viewpoints would not get aired in the schools, whatever this required. Anyone ELSE, using this same tactic, would of course be denying the freedoms of the Christians.

You need to look beyond the letter of the law, to the politics being manipulated here.

From a practical point of view, as opposed to legal, Flint is right - the issue of what is “disruptive” is an administrative judgment call that leaves lots of room for unbalanced treatment.

On the one hand, as Tim Sandefur pointed out earlier, just the concern for possible disruption is not enough, but on the other hand, as soon as someone becomes upset or protests, does that become a disruption? And who, then, is the disruptee? - the person handing out the flier or the person getting upset?

This depends so much on the administrator in the school - his or her tolerance for conflict as a necessary part of learning vs. his or her need for administrative control and order. Certainly in many schools a student handing out fliers on why one should be an atheist would arouse enough protest that many administrators would declare a disruption; and yet in those same schools few would be willing to protest against a Christian flier.

Though Timothy could probably write this himself, here is a document prepared by the ACLU with input from lots of people about current law and what is and is not allowed:

http://www.aclu.org/ReligiousLibert[…]07&c=139

These issues need to be put to a practical test.We need to come up with age-appropriate materials that calmly lay out the many factual and ethcial problems with traditional religion beliefs and provide propagandized children and teen agers with the alternatives denied them by their parents and teachers.

Those books and FAQs exist. You can find them at atheist sites.

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on October 28, 2004 8:27 PM.

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