It’s hard not to want to muzzle Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, a group whose URL is godhatesfags.com and whose mission is to oppose “the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth.” In fact, the US Supreme Court is currently deliberating on a case that will decide whether the church’s free speech rights are sacrosanct, or if they can or should be tempered in the interest of civil polity.
But Phelps is the not the only contemporary Christian to test the First Amendment’s reach. In Roswell, New Mexico—otherwise famous as the site of a purported 1947 UFO crash—a group of high schoolers is challenging the Roswell Independent School District [RISD] and demanding the right to distribute anti-abortion messages and religious information to their teachers and peers.
The teens, who call their group “Relentless in Roswell” and are affiliated with Church on the Move, are represented by the Liberty Counsel, a law firm dedicated “to restoring the culture by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the family.“ A complaint filed in federal court in late June by General Counsel Steve Cramton alleges that the students’ constitutional rights were violated when they were denied the right to distribute their materials. The complaint further alleges that the RISD engaged in unlawful censorship.
The facts of the case are a He Said/She Said tangle, but both sides agree that Relentless members began ministering at the town’s two public high schools—which they attend–in late 2009. Among their activities: Handing out free sandwiches, hot chocolate, and candy canes at school entrances. On January 22, 2010, the 37th anniversary of Roe V. Wade, they handed out rocks painted with “U R Wonderful” on one side and Psalm 139—“You knit me together in my mother’s womb/Your eyes saw my unborn body”–on the other. A week later, the students returned—this time armed with “plastic models of preborn babies at 12 weeks gestation” that included contact info for a local Crisis Pregnancy Center. By all accounts, officials at both high schools reacted quickly, confiscating the rubber fetuses and shuttering the action.
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According to Jerry A. Walz, the attorney representing the RISD, “When the Relentless students showed up with the fetuses, many students were offended. Kids were throwing them at each other and some people complained that the activity was causing chaos.”
Walz further states that the District has a clear policy on the distribution of outside materials:
“Students may distribute and possess in or on school premises, school buses, or at school-sponsored activities any form of non-school sponsored literature including but not limited to newspapers, magazines, leaflets, and pamphlets.”
At the same time the District requires students to get prior approval from an Assistant Principal before materials can be circulated.
“The Relentless students didn’t ask the District for permission to hand out the sandwiches, rocks, candy canes or hot chocolate, so they didn’t follow the process,” Walz says.”
What’s more, he says that the District was caught unaware when the students showed up and began their early morning distribution. By the time administrators realized what was going on, he explains, these activities were over.
Liberty Counsel’s Steve Cramton laughs at the suggestion that the schools were oblivious to Relentless activities before they handed out the fetuses.
“The students were handing out food and drink in front of the schools. Guards, students, administrators and teachers all had to see these events,” he begins. “To me, the fact that they did not shut them down shows that the District gave its tacit approval to what the students were doing.”
The core issue, he continues, is what kinds of speech the First Amendment is willing to protect.
“The question becomes whether the government has the right to censor speech on the basis of someone’s perception that it is offensive to them. If you look at First Amendment principles, the answer is a resounding no. I understand the District’s concerns about maintaining order if something is disruptive, but what is disruptive?”
For his part, Jerry Walz contends that the RISD is not a censor. Case in point, he says, is the fact that Relentless members were given permission to host two events since school began in September. One, “Rally ‘Round the Flag Pole,” was a show of “patriotism and faith.” Another, the distribution of stickers with “life-affirming” messages, was also okayed.
“The Relentless kids can’t just show up and distribute stuff,” Walz adds.
“Shortly after the two permitted activities they surreptitiously brought 27 dozen Krispy Kreme donuts with Bible messages into the faculty lounge of the schools. This was not a student bringing an apple to a teacher. They were disciplined because they did this without permission. The school district can regulate conduct so that nothing disrupts the educational process. Nobody has stifled the free speech of students here.”
Not so, say Relentless in Roswell activists and lawyer Cramton. Likewise, civil libertarians.
“More speech is better than censorship,” says Laura Ives, Managing Attorney of the ACLU of New Mexico. “Ideally, if a conversation was started outside of class via the rubber fetuses or the donuts, it offers the schools an opportunity to discuss the subject. That would be best—using the incidents as a stepping stone to conversation.”
Sadly, that hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, as the lawsuit proceeds through the courts, members of Relentless pledge to live up to their name. For them, the Gospel of Free Speech is sacred. Were that pro-choicers in Roswell were as assertive.