A U.S. District Court has granted preliminary injunction permitting the Satan Club to use a school district’s facilities. What are the central issues and how should school districts handle these questions in light of the recent trend for courts to find in favor of free speech?
On May 1, 2023, U.S. District Court Judge John M. Gallagher ordered Saucon Valley School District to permit the after-school use of district facilities to The Satanic Temple, Inc., also known as “The Satan Club”, that had once been approved and later denied by the District.
In a 32 page, carefully written Opinion, Judge Gallagher dismissed the District’s claims of disruption and policy violation before reaching the quintessential finding in a First Amendment case: “the District’s decision to rescind approval of TST’s application was based on the content of and of TST’s religious viewpoint and the reactions to it.”
It is a well-established principle that school districts, while not required to open their facilities to outside groups, once they do they create what is known in constitutional law as a “designated” or “limited forum.” Once outside groups are permitted to use district facilities, districts cannot deny the use of the same facilities based on viewpoint.
Despite its name, The Satanic Temple, Inc. (TST), does not claim to worship Satan but rather regards Satan as a “metaphorical construct of rejecting tyranny, changing the human mind and seeking justice and equality.”
On February 16, 2023, the District originally approved TST’s application to use school facilities after school hours; thereafter, the District received a flood of emails and calls critical of the District’s decision, including a call threatening violence which shut down the District for a day.
On or around February 23, 2023, the District became aware of two postings on social media advertising the Satan Club. The District contended that neither of the posts clearly stated that the club was not being sponsored by the District as required by District policy 707. Based upon these alleged policy violations, the District rescinded its approval of TST’s facilities use application. Litigation spearheaded by the ACLU followed.
Significant in its legal analysis was the principle of constitutional law analysis that once TST was able to state a “colorable” claim that the District’s action restricts some form of speech, the burden shifts to the District to justify the restriction.
The Court quickly concluded that the District had established a designated public forum by permitting various civic and religious organizations to use its facilities. The Court also questioned whether the evidence showed a clear violation of policy 707 and cited examples of when the disclaimer called for in policy 707 was not enforced.
Finally, the court pointed to several emails written by the Superintendent that suggested that the reason for the decision to remove TST from the facilities was due to the controversy surrounding its viewpoint.
In short, the Court had little difficulty in concluding that the District’s motivation for rescinding the approval for TST was viewpoint discrimination.
Bottom Line for Schools
When faced with the prospect of allowing controversial groups to use district facilities, Boards would be well-advised to keep in mind the very first sentence of Judge Gallagher’s opinion:
“When confronted with a challenge to free speech, the government’s first instinct must be to forward expression rather than quash it.”
In recent years, courts, whether considered to be liberal or conservative, have ruled in favor of protecting first amendment rights, whether it is the Satan Club, the crude gestures of a cheerleader on social media or the vulgar vituperations of an angry public at board meetings.
Of course, there are exceptions. True threats, harassment and obscenity need not be tolerated. As characterized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Mahanoy City v. B.L. (6/23/21), schools have a “heavy” burden to show how their interest in restricting speech outweighs the rights of individual expression.
Clearly, technical violations of district policies, especially those not routinely enforced, are not likely to outweigh the importance of First Amendment protections.
Arriving at the correct constitutional balance sometimes requires putting aside the counter-intuitive and the repugnant. Consultation with a knowledgeable school lawyer is vital to avoid liability and the costly attorney’s fees that accompany an adverse order.
School leaders with questions about First Amendment rights or policies for public use of campus facilities should contact their legal counsel or one of the Education attorneys at KingSpry.