At Students for Life of America, we know that pro-life groups often face pushback from their school administration. We have created a list of common questions we have received in the past as well as how to respond. If your group ever faces these issues or anything else, please contact your regional coordinator and the SFLA Communications Team at [email protected] to help you determine the best course of action.
Note: This advice applies only to public schools, not private schools.
However, we are happy to help with any school.
- Can a school say that I cannot put up posters because abortion is “too political”?
No. Regulations must be ‘content-neutral’, which means they cannot pertain to the content of the message (with limited exceptions). For example, a public high school can have a policy that prohibits all posters on lockers. However, they cannot allow a pro-choice group to put up posters, but not allow a pro-life group to do so.
- Can a school deny the formation of a pro-life group due to separation of church and state?
No. First, Students for Life is officially a secular organization. Second, even if your group chooses to conduct activities with a religious component, it’s still unconstitutional for a public school to deny the formation of a group because it is religious, has a religious element, or conducts religious activities.
- “My school said if I put up posters about abortion, the next school board meeting would have parents coming and complaining, so it counts as causing a ‘disruption.’” Is that true?
No, a topic itself (like abortion) may not be deemed to be too disruptive to the school environment. A disruption would be some action or words that incited violence or called for students to riot. Even a significant disruption will not be enough to stop a group’s message, so long as the group members themselves are not causing the disruption. Inconveniencing an administrator and upsetting parents are not legal disruptions and are not grounds to prohibit a group from putting up pro-life posters.
- Can a school prevent my club from starting because there isn’t another club to balance mine out?
A school cannot deny your pro-life group just because there is no pro-choice group. You can also point out to your school that if students want to hear the other side, they can always start their own pro-choice group after they find out there is a pro-life group.
- What are some important court cases I should know?
- Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969): In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not ‘shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate’ and wearing black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam was protected. Schools will often claim this decision gives them to right to prevent potentially disruptive behavior, which is true, but disruptive means ‘inciting violence’ not, ‘putting up posters that provide information about pregnancy resource centers.’
- Equal Access Act of 1984, 20 U.S.C.A. 4071, and Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990): Public high schools cannot treat one non-curricular group differently than other non-curricular groups. (A “non-curricular group” is a student group that [fill in definition.].)In other words, if a school allows one non-curricular group, they must allow all others. This means if your school has a LGBT group, a Red Cross group, or an Anime club, for example, they must allow a pro-life group. This often comes up with pro-life and religious groups.
Rules must be content-neutral, which is to say that they cannot discriminate based on what you are saying. For example, a high school can probably prohibit posters from being hung up on walls but cannot prohibit only the pro-life group from hanging posters. Once a ‘public forum’ is created, all must be allowed in it.
- Can a school keep you in a free speech area[AA1] ?
As with other types of restrictions, a free speech area must be enforced even-handedly, with clear rules that can be applied without favoritism. Additionally, any free speech area and accompanying regulations (e.g., time limitations, advance notice, restrictions on using sound amplification or other equipment, etc.) must be reasonably related to the purpose of the restriction, such as preventing congestion on walkways or preventing disruption of class in nearby classrooms. Restrictions should be narrowly tailored to accomplish that purpose. Note that this applies generally to colleges.
If the school has a policy or procedure that requires you to submit copies of your literature or signs prior to giving you permission to engage in your desired activities or utilize the “free speech area,” that may be a sign that the rules are not being enforced even-handedly.
- Can a school charge you for security?
Sometimes a security fee may be charged, but there must be clear guidelines. For example, if an outside speaker is coming in and requires security because of his or her notoriety (such as a U.S. Senator or a well-known CEO), the school may require the sponsoring group to provide some of the security fees. However, a school may generally not charge fees based off the potential reaction of other people to the event. For example, the school cannot say that pro-choicers might get upset at a pro-life speaker, therefore the group has to pay for security costs.
- Can a school require something of you that other clubs don’t have to do?
No, schools have to be viewpoint-neutral and all rules have to be applied evenly. This means if the Quidditch club isn’t required to turn in a yearly budget, your group can’t be required to turn in a yearly budget.
- Can a school deny you use of student activity fees?
A school cannot deny a club use of student fees based on viewpoint or content. A school cannot forbid religious or political groups from receiving funding. The only exception is a school may deny you use of funds for an explicitly campaign-related event (e.g., a school can deny the College Republicans’ request to use student fees to host a fundraiser or campaign speech by a political candidate). Schools can set up systems for allocating funding, but they must have clear rules. For example, they can require you to detail how money will be spent or describe the expected audience for activities funded with student fees.
- Where else can I find resources?
First, whenever you think you may have a free-speech or legal issue, you should let your regional coordinator know and e-mail the SFLA Communications Team, [email protected] with the summary of what is happening. The better the ‘paper trail’ you have of your situation, the better we are able to help you.
Second, there are great resources out there to learn more.
- The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has a First Amendment library online where you can read about other Supreme Court cases (https://www.thefire.org/first-amendment-library/cases-on-campus/).
- Alliance Defending Freedom also maintains a great resource bank at https://adflegal.org/issues/religious-freedom/university/resources.
- Life Legal Defense Foundation (https://lldf.org) has represented pro-life students all over the country and is accessible by phone or email ([email protected] 707-224-6675).
If you ever have a free-speech question, please let us know and we will help you chart the best course forward!