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Students sue CCSD over alleged censorship of anti-abortion club

Current and former members of an anti-abortion club at East Career and Technical Academy are suing the district after they said they experienced discrimination and censorship from school administrators.

Felipe Avila and Jannelle Rivera were both members of the Students for Life Club at the east Las Vegas magnet school when they said their First Amendment rights were violated, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday.

According to the complaint, those violations included the students being told they could not distribute flyers or hang banners promoting their club and their anti-abortion message.

“That pervasive discrimination and censorship took numerous forms…and was intended to, and successfully, suppressed the pro-life message of the (Students For Life Club),” the lawsuit read.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the students by attorneys with the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group.

Avila and Rivera are seeking compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction blocking the district from enforcing its current policies concerning clubs.

In response to questions about the lawsuit and its policies regarding what flyers students can circulate on campus, the district said in a statement that it does not comment on pending litigation.

Lawsuit allegations

The complaint outlines a number of instances where the students said they experienced disparate treatment from school administrators when it came to the operations of their club.

The complaint alleges that the school:

— Blocked the Students for Life Club from distributing flyers promoting a crisis pregnancy center. The centers have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, as they don’t perform abortions or provide abortion referrals and instead attempt to counsel pregnant people against choosing abortion and to opt for other alternatives like adoption.

— Blocked the club from posting flyers announcing the date, time and location of its first meeting of the school year because the flyer depicted young people holding signs with pro-life messages like “I reject abortion”

— Blocked the club from publishing flyers outlining health code violations at Planned Parenthood in the school newspaper.

— Blocked the club from hanging a banner that said “Students for Life. The Future is Anti-Abortion” in the school cafeteria.

The complaint also alleges that the school and district, specifically Superintendent Jesus Jara and Principal Trish Taylor, failed to address the cyberbullying that Avila, the club’s founder, experienced from other students because of his beliefs.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the landmark Supreme Court case concerning the free speech of students, established that students and teachers “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Possible free speech challenges?

Athar Haseebullah, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said if there are no content-based restrictions on what students can distribute at school, there needs to be a level and fair constitutional playing field.

But free speech challenges may exist if there are content-based restrictions on the type of activities students can conduct on campus.

A district policy outlining limitations on speech for clubs says that they cannot:

— Cause substantial disruption to the educational environment or mission of the school

— Adversely affect the health, safety or welfare of students and staff

— Bully, cyberbully or intimidate other people

— Run contrary to the law, school board policies and regulations or school rules

— Be organized, broadcast or endorsed by the school

Haseebullah said that without all the facts, it’s hard to discern whether the alleged behavior interfered with other students’ rights to access a safe and respectful learning environment.

If it does interfere and can qualify as a potential disruption for students’ ability to engage in their educational experience, “there could be challenges on that front,” he said.

Contact Lorraine Longhi at 702-387-5298 or llonghi@reviewjournal.com. Follow her at @lolonghi on Twitter.

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