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Walz v. Egg Harbor Twp. Bd. of Educ. - 342 F.3d 271 (3d Cir. 2003)


In conventional elementary school activities, the age of the students bears an important inverse relationship to the degree and kind of control a school may exercise: as a general matter, the younger the students, the more control a school may exercise. The susceptibility of school children to prestige suggestion and social influence within the school environment varies inversely with the age, grade level, and consequent degree of sophistication of the child. A school's authority to control student speech in an elementary school setting is undoubtedly greater than in a high school setting. A school must be able to restrict student expression that contradicts or distracts from a curricular activity. Where student expression interferes with the legitimate teaching of an organized and pedagogically-based classroom activity, a school may reasonably restrict or limit expression beyond the bounds of what the activity intends to teach. Speech that disrupts education, causes disorder, or inappropriately interferes with other students' rights may be proscribed or regulated.


Over a period of a few years, Daniel Walz, a student in pre-kindergarten, had not been allowed to distribute gifts that contained religious messages to his classmates at holiday classroom parties. On two occasions, he had been allowed to distribute them outside of the classroom. On another occasion, the gifts had been confiscated by the teacher. Subsequently, plaintiff Walz, through his mother, sued defendants Egg Harbor Township Board of Education and Dr. Leonard Kelpsh, and the Egg Harbor Township school superintendent, alleging violations of the First Amendment (freedom of expression and free exercise of religion) and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, and under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The complaint alleged a continuing violation based on Daniel's attempts to distribute candy canes and the accompanying story at school holiday parties. In his complaint, Daniel sought a declaration that the school's policy was unconstitutional and an injunction prohibiting defendants from enforcing the policy. Both parties asked for summary judgment. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants. Daniel Walz filed a timely appeal.


Did the public school violate plaintiff elementary student Walz’s constitutional rights by preventing him from distributing gifts with religious messages during school holiday parties?




The United States Court of Appeals held that it was well within the school's ambit of authority to prevent the distribution of gifts with religious items during the holiday parties. The Court looked to precedent that while school students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," a public school's need to control student behavior will necessarily result in limitations on student speech. According to the Court, the seasonal holiday parties were instructional activities, as much a part of the curriculum as "show and tell" or art class. In this case, the subsequent exchange of gifts was intended as a teaching tool to promote sharing. The gift-giving from one student to another was not intended to promote a particular religious message. Therefore, the Court ruled that there was no deprivation of Walz’s First Amendment rights. The Court held that it was appropriate for the school to confiscate the gifts given its educational goal which was at cross-purposes with proselytizing speech.

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