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4th Circuit Backs School District on Political Speech

A federal appeals court ruled today that a South Carolina school district did not violate the free-speech rights of a local citizen when it denied him access to its Web site and other communications outlets he had sought to use to counter the district's own message of opposition to a bill in the state legislature.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., held that Lexington County School District No. 1 was engaged in government speech when it used its Web site, e-mail system, and other means in 2004 and 2005 to disseminate its opposition to a then-pending bill that would have authorized tax credits for private school tuition and home-schooling expenses.

The district's leaders believed the bill would undermine support for public education, so it put links on its Web site to materials offered by two outside groups that also opposed the bill.

Citing that and other district communications efforts, Lexington County resident Randall Page requested "equal access" to the district's communications channels to offer messages in support of the tax-credit bill. When the district refused his request, Page sued.

In its opinion in Page v. Lexington County School District One , the 4th Circuit panel said the school district established its message of opposition to the bill, maintained control of its content, and controlled its dissemination to the public. Even though the district put up links on its Web site to other groups opposing the bill, the district retained ultimate control of its site, the court said. And even though the district used its e-mail system to forward articles opposing the tax credit, there was no indication that the authors of those articles had sought or been given independent access to the district's e-mail system.

The court likened the situation to that at the heart of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association. In that case, the justices upheld a federal policy of promoting the consumption of beef, including the Department of Agriculture's adoption of ad copy written by private groups in the beef industry, against a First Amendment challenge by some members of the beef industry who objected to having to help fund the campaign.

The South Carolina case had attracted the attention of numerous school groups, including those who had signed on to this friend-of-the-court brief filed on the Lexington district's side by the National School Boards Association.

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