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Restrictions on Student Distribution of Materials Upheld

A federal appeals court has upheld a Texas school district's policy limiting when students may distribute written materials to their classmates.

The Plano Independent School District's 2005 policy permits distribution of materials only during the 30 minutes before and after school, three annual parties, recess, and only passively at designated tables during school hours. Also, middle and high school students may distribute materials in cafeterias and hallways during noninstructional times, but elementary students may not.

Several Plano families say the policy was adopted in response to controversy over efforts by some students to distribute religious materials, including pencils inscribed with "Jesus is the reason for the season" and candy canes with cards describing the treats' Christian origin.

Parents say their children were barred from distributing the materials over three years, including under rules that preceded the 2005 policy. The parents sued over the alleged restrictions from the earlier years as well as over the 2005 policy, saying it violated their children's free-speech rights in school.

A federal district court largely upheld the 2005 policy. In a Dec. 1 ruling in Morgan v. Plano Independent School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously upheld the policy as well.

The appeals court found that the 2005 rules were valid, content-neutral restrictions on the time, place, and manner of student speech.

"The regulations are aimed at providing a focused learning environment for its students," the court said, adding that it accepted a narrowing interpretation by the district court that the rules were aimed at mass distribution of materials by students to their classmates, not a student's passing of a single note or book to another.

While the district court had struck down the policy's restriction on elementary students' distribution of materials in their lunchrooms, the appeals court upheld that rule.

"The [school] district presented evidence ... that elementary school students are not as mature and require more guidance than older students in order to ensure that they are able to move through the cafeteria quickly and efficiently," the appeals court said.

The court asked the district court to decide whether the plaintiffs merited damages for the alleged limits placed on the religious messages over the three years before the 2005 policy was adopted.

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