Christian Law Firms Are Leading Defenders of Free Speech in Schools

In “Strange Bedfellows,” our legal beat column for the forthcoming issue of Education Next, Martha Derthick and I wrote on a case out of Texas, Palmer v.  Waxahachie Independent School District, that brought two unusual groups together on the same side:  supporters of John Edwards and Christian conservatives.  The case started after a student, Paul Palmer, was punished for violating his school’s dress code.  Included among his sartorial offenses was wearing a “John Edwards for President” t-shirt.   For counsel, Mr. Palmer had none other than the Liberty Legal Institute (LLI), a Christian public interest firm dedicated to protecting religious liberty, a firm we suspect was not sympathetic to John Edwards’ presidential ambitions.

Mr. Palmer lost in federal district court and before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  His petition argued that the 5th Circuit’s decision “threatens to vest government-run schools with virtually unfettered authority to censor student speech.”  Supporting Mr. Palmer’s petition were a veritable who’s who of public interest law firms devoted to defending religious liberties, including the American Center for Law and Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Christian Legal Society.  On January 11th, after our Ed Next article was completed, the Supreme Court denied Mr. Palmer’s petition for certiorari.

The case, we think, has two important implications.  The first, as we say in our article, is that it “provides additional evidence that federal courts have grown leery of second-guessing the choices of school districts and administrators.”  The second is that we are likely to see more and more unusual coalitions like this one in school speech and discipline cases.  Christian public interest firms like the Liberty Legal Institute have become some of the staunchest defenders of student speech rights and, therefore, defenders of Tinker v. Des Moines (1969).  Their fear, we point out, is “that if schools can suppress John Edwards T-shirts . . . then they can just as easily suppress John 3:16.”

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