NEWSFLASH! 12/29-1/12

After a long and deserved winter break, the First Amendment Law Review staff is back to work! We look forward to bringing you new issues and blog posts this semester!

Here are some First Amendment headlines made since the beginning of the New Year:

The United States Supreme Court is poised to hear a case this month concerning whether states are free to limit (or completely bar) public funding of religious schools. The initial lawsuit raising the issue was brought by students from Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana after a Montana agency refused to provide money to students through a state program. The state’s Supreme Court ultimately dismantled the entire program—for religious and non-religious schools—and now SCOTUS will decide whether the state court was “free to strike it down based on the State Constitution’s prohibition of government aid to religion.” Oral arguments will be heard on at the end of the month.

Virginia legislators are proposing a new law that would limit school administrators’ ability to censor or delete publications written by students. The legislative push is largely in response to incidents of student journalists being forced to edit or remove publications criticizing school policies, discussing controversial political issues, and investigating specific students. While the United States Supreme Court has ruled that schools may censor students’ pieces if the action is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” the Virginia law would stipulate “that administrators can censor content only if it is libelous or slanderous, violates federal law, or is likely to spur dangerous or unlawful acts of violence.”

A former professor at Babson College—a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts—was recently fired after suggesting on Facebook that Iranian leadership “should tweet a list of 52 sites of cultural American heritage that [it] would bomb.” Professor Asheen Phansey later clarified that his post was an inappropriate joke and apologized; nonetheless, Babson College fired him stating that his comment doesn’t reflect the values of the school. While Phansey has given no indication of bringing suit against his former employer, caselaw clearly suggests that private institutions like Babson have greater authority than public schools in terminating employees based upon their speech.

Adding to the increasingly controversial discussion surrounding free speech and vanity license plates, a Utah plate reading “DEPORTM” is being investigated by the state’s Driver License Division. Critics argue that the plate’s message refers to the deportation of undocumented immigrants and is divisive and racist. While states typically cannot compel speech from individuals (e.g. force drivers to adopt an ideology through the text on their license plate), there is a widely documented circuit split over whether drivers have free speech rights in choosing the text of their vanity plates. While many states regulate vanity plate speech, several state courts and circuit courts have, in certain cases, forbidden the limiting of such text. Whether this particular Utah driver will be able to keep his/her plate remains to be determined.

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