Two students at Parkland High School in Allentown submitted a proposal in March to start a chapter of Students for Life of America (SFLA), whose mission is to “abolish abortion in our lifetime,” at their school. The school’s vice-principal denied their request. The Thomas More Society, representing the students and SFLA, sent a letter to school administrators in May.
“[The students] have informed us that Assistant Principal Sandt has denied their club the right to become an official student club at Parkland High School because the pro-life message is too ‘political’ and ‘controversial.'” the letter states. “Parkland High School’s refusal to permit [the students] to create a pro-life club constitutes a violation of their rights under both the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the federal Equal Access Act. Additionally, this denial violates Parkland School District’s own policies regarding student organizations.”
Equal Access Argument
The district responded to the letter by saying it is willing to approve the club, but not unconditionally. Thomas More Society special counsel Jocelyn Floyd told School Reform News, “It has made that willingness contingent on placing certain conditions on the club that are not in accordance with the First Amendment or the Equal Access Act.”
The Equal Access Act is a federal law passed in 1984 requiring federally funded secondary schools to allow equal access to student groups without regard to the content of their speech, whether political, religious, philosophical, or otherwise.
Floyd says the school’s denial of the students’ request also violates the First Amendment.
“The school is concerned with the mission statement of the club because it appears the club intends to try to change other people’s opinions, which is, well, the very nature and purpose of free speech,” Floyd said.
Parkland’s website lists a political science club and a Gay Straight Alliance, among many other extracurricular student groups. As of July, attorneys on both sides were still discussing the case. No lawsuit has yet been filed.
In addition to the demand letter, SFLA is involved in two lawsuits regarding free speech in California. SFLA director of communications Kristina Hernandez says school administrators should be better informed about students’ rights.
“It’s unusual, at this point, that schools don’t use Google more often to find out more about Students for Life and the type of cases we have helped to make public,” Hernandez said. “It’s astounding to us that school administrators are not properly educated on the First Amendment rights of their students.”
Hernandez says what she calls the Parkland administrators’ “excuses” for denying the SFLA club are typical of the organization’s experiences at other high schools.
“We deal with these kinds of situations at high schools maybe a dozen times a year or more,” Hernandez said. “If a school does not relent, then we will often go public in order to make sure our pro-life students aren’t treated like second-class citizens.”
Harry Painter ([email protected]) writes from Brooklyn, New York.
Jocelyn Floyd, “Re: Violation of Students’ Right to Establish Pro-Life Club at Parkland High School,” Thomas More Society, May 17, 2017: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/violation-of-students-right-to-establish-pro-life-club-at-parkland-high-school