ACLU of MA Defends Students Punished for Distributing Candy Canes with Religious Messages

February 21, 2003 12:00 am

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NORTHAMPTON, MA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today asked a federal district court in Springfield to protect the First Amendment rights of high school students who were disciplined by school officials for distributing candy canes with religious messages just before Christmas.

“Students have a right to communicate ideas, religious or otherwise, to other students during their free time, before or after class, in the cafeteria, or elsewhere,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Jeffrey Pyle, the main author of a friend-of-the-court brief submitted in the case.

As a high school senior in 1993, Pyle was the plaintiff in a landmark ACLU case that established the free speech rights of secondary school students in the state. Today’s case is the first litigation in Massachusetts involving student free speech since Pyle v. South Hadley School Committee was decided in 1996.

In today’s case, the court is reviewing whether officials at Westfield High School in Western Massachusetts violated the rights of a student-initiated Bible Club by punishing them for handing out handing out candy canes with religious messages attached. The basis for the discipline is a school rule that prohibits the distribution of all literature that is not related to the curriculum.

The students each received a one-day suspension, which school officials agreed not to enforce after they were contacted by the ACLU of Massachusetts. The students subsequently filed a lawsuit asking the court to order to school not to interfere further with their right to hand out religious information.

In legal papers filed today, the ACLU of Massachusetts argued that the school rule interferes with the free speech rights of public high school students in Massachusetts under both state law and the First Amendment, which protects their speech as long as it does not disrupt the educational process. This principle was firmly established in the Pyle case, which concerned various messages on t-shirts worn by then-high school student Jeffrey Pyle and his brother, Jonathan.

Pyle went on to graduate from Trinity College in 1997 and Boston College Law School in 2000. He is now a First Amendment attorney in the Media and Intellectual Property Group at the Boston law firm of Prince, Lobel, Glovsky & Tye. Pyle represents newspapers and magazines throughout New England, including student newspapers such as the Harvard Crimson.

The case is scheduled for a hearing this Tuesday, February 25 in federal district court in Springfield before Judge Frank Freedman.

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