Legal group files free-speech suit against Loomis schools

A conservative legal group that defends religious freedoms has sued the Loomis Union School District, complaining that campus officials violated a sixth-grader’s free-speech rights by scolding her for sharing religious fliers with two friends during the lunch hour without permission.

The Pacific Justice Institute lawsuit filed in federal court in Sacramento also names Superintendent Gordon Medd, Loomis Basin Charter School and two campus administrators. It alleges the 12-year-old girl was called to the principal’s office four times in one day and required to “write out an incident report to confess what she had done.”

The girl, identified only as K.C., was instructed by the principal to turn over her fliers and scolded for bringing them to school “because the content is religious and … had not been approved by the school district,” according to the November lawsuit filed by the Sacramento-based group. The lawsuit said the girl was also told “not to talk about religion at school.”

District representatives did not dispute that the school reprimanded the girl for handing out the fliers without permission. But they say the school never prohibited K.C. from talking about religion in school. The school curriculum itself “covers discussion of world religions, and the discussion of religion during class is open and broad,” according to a Sept. 23 letter to the institute from the district’s law firm, Kingsley Bogard of Folsom.

The letter described the charter school as “a conservative International Baccalaureate school that prides itself on risk-taking, open discussion and international mindedness.”

The flier, an exhibit in the lawsuit, detailed a series of Thursday night seminars called “Creation v. Evolution,” by Genesis Apologetics. It said the group provides “scientifically grounded responses” to evolutionary teachings in public schools and sought to counter two common textbooks used in public middle schools.

“This is a very clear court case,” said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute. “Students’ First Amendment rights do not stop at the schoolhouse gates.” He called the school’s actions a “blatant violation of established case law.”

While he was not familiar with the specifics of the Loomis case, Michael Risher, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said school districts can establish reasonable rules for distribution of promotional materials. But, he said, in general those rules should not apply to something that is informing people about an event involving protected speech.

“It’s one thing to say a student should not pass out ads for widgets or cookies,” he said. “That’s much more subject to government regulation than a flier inviting somebody to a political rally. It’s quite different to say that students can’t talk about or pass out a flier that invites other students to a free presentation.”

Superintendent Medd, along with attorneys for the district, said the charter school and the district are acting within the law.

Medd said the district’s policies set forth the rules for student distribution of their own material. “Anything that is given from one student to another is considered distribution,” he said.

The board policy on distribution of promotional material requires a disclaimer: “The Loomis Union Elementary School District neither endorses nor sponsors the organization or activity represented in this document. The distribution of this material is provided as a community service.”

Another part of the policy warns that no posted material may contain “religiously proselytizing language,” with the exception of religious materials that promote health, education or welfare of students.

The ACLU’s Risher said the California Education Code “specifically protects the rights of students in public schools, including charters,” to exercise freedom of speech and pass out materials.

But at the federal level, courts are split on what sort of restrictions are allowed for distributing materials. Some courts have said pre-distribution review is allowed. Some have said the opposite, Risher said.

“What is clear is that schools cannot discriminate against materials on the basis of their religious viewpoints,” Risher said. “If, in fact, that’s what’s going on here, that would be unconstitutional.”

The matter came to the attention of school officials after K.C. handed a flier to a friend, and the two talked about attending a Genesis Apologetics seminar on Sept. 4 in Folsom. On Sept. 5, the girls decided to invite another friend to the final seminar the next Thursday. The third girl said she would talk to her mother. The mother subsequently called the charter school director.

On Sept. 10, the lawsuit said, K.C. was summoned to the principal’s office to report in writing what she had done. Fifteen minutes after she returned to class, the school director determined the incident report was inadequate and had K.C. called back to the office. By day’s end, the girl had been called into the office four times to continue work on the incident report, the suit said.

Medd said it is not uncommon for an administrator to speak to a student more than once during investigation of an issue and that it is district practice to require students to write an “incident report” when staff learn of a problem.

Neither K.C. nor her parents were willing to comment.

Dan Biddle, president of Genesis Apologetics of Folsom, said the nonprofit group formed about a year ago. He said it reviews public school textbooks on evolution and analyzes their findings from a religious standpoint so that students can counter the public school teachings.

The group’s website said its aim is to help students receive “Biblically- and scientifically-based answers to the evolutionary theory.”

Biddle said he had heard about the Pacific Justice Institute lawsuit but did not know details. He said presenters made fliers available in each seminar and “encouraged people to hand them out as they saw fit.”

Biddle said he was not surprised that a public school pushed back, “because we’re taking their textbooks head-on.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.