Tenth Circuit upholds school's ban on 'fetus dolls'

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Monday that a New Mexico school district acted constitutionally when it prohibited five students from distributing two-inch rubber fetus dolls with pro-life cards attached. Writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, the Honorable Scott Matheson, Jr. opined that the school's restrictions on handing out the dolls and its policy requiring the principal's preapproval to engage in promotional activities on campus did not violate the First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] rights of the students. Specifically, the court held the students' free speech actions, though normally protected even if private and not school-sponsored, "reasonably forecasted that the distribution of the rubber dolls would lead to a substantial disruption," thus justifying the school's restrictions. In January 2010, the religious group of students, known as "Relentless," distributed 300 dolls at Goddard High School [official website] in Roswell, New Mexico. The size of the dolls, two inches, was meant to suggest the size of a fetus at 12 weeks of gestation, as indicated by the card's description of the doll as a "12-week old baby." While the group planned to distribute a total of 2,500 dolls between Goddard High and Roswell High School [official website], teachers at both schools complained that their students' preoccupation with the dolls disrupted classroom discussion, prompting school administrators to quickly end the dolls' distribution. The Tenth Circuit reasoned:

The sheer number of items ... created strong potential for substantial disruption. Furthermore, these fetus dolls were made of rubber, a material that could easily be, and was, pulled apart, bounced against walls, and stuck to ceilings. The dolls' small size made them tempting projectiles and toilet-clogging devices. This scenario carries more potential for disruption than the passive, silent act of wearing a T-shirt or a black armband. And that potential quickly came to fruition.
Although this disruption was caused by those receiving the dolls rather than the group, the court further reasoned that "the government has a compelling interest in protecting the educational mission of the school and ensuring student safety."

Reproductive rights [JURIST backgrounder] remain a controversial issue across the country. Similar to the fetus doll dispute, a judge for the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina [official website] in December ruled [JURIST report] that North Carolina could not offer specialty pro-life license plates without offering a pro-choice alternative. There, the court found that the "Choose Life" license plates were an expression of private speech rather than government speech which would have allowed the North Carolina General Assembly to regulate the message. In November 2011, the court ordered an injunction [JURIST report] to prevent North Carolina from issuing the same license plates. The lawsuit was originally filed [JURIST report] by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) [advocacy website] in September 2011.

 

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