(CNSNews.com) -- The Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm, has declared the Rio Rancho Middle School’s refusal to allow students to form a pro-life club a “violation of the First Amendment,” and advised the public school that it could face a federal civil rights lawsuit if it does not sanction the club.
Last year, the Albuquerque, N.M. school’s principal, Lynda Kitts, reportedly refused to grant permission to then-8th grade student Dylan Fredette to form a Students for Life of America group at Rio Rancho Middle School (RRMS).
Now, Fredette’s younger brother Isaiah Fredette, a 7th grader at the same school, is attempting to start the same club. The Thomas More Society, a non-profit, public interest law firm, is representing him to school administrators in a demand letter.
“This letter should be deemed Isaiah’s formal renewed request to establish a non-curriculum pro-life club at RRMS called Phoenixes for Life consistent with Dylan’s previous similar request,” the Thomas More Society wrote to school administrators in the Sept. 18 letter.
“The denial of the request to form and operate a pro-life group constitutes a clear violation of the First Amendment,” the Thomas More Society wrote.
“If we do not receive a response from you, or you otherwise continue to refuse to allow the formation of a pro-life club at RRMS, we will pursue all available legal remedies on behalf of Dylan and Isaiah including the filing of a federal civil rights action,” states the letter.
The Thomas More society requested a response from the RRMS administration by Sept. 25, 2018.
According to the letter, Kitts told Dylan Fredette in November 2017 that she “could not allow a pro-life club because it would be too controversial and would not be ‘fair’ to people who are ‘on the other side of the issue.’”
Since then, Kitts has “disclaimed any memory” of the conversation with Fredette and has not responded to his other requests to form the club.
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said, “It is shameful that Rio Rancho Middle School, a taxpayer-funded school, has been discriminating against pro-life students for almost a full year now. The school has appallingly and disgustingly continued to throw up illegal obstacles in the way of students who want to start a group to reach out to their peers and educate them about the injustice of abortion.”
She noted that school administrators appeared to be either “willfully ignorant or deliberately anti-free speech against pro-life students.”
In its letter, the Thomas More Society provided a legal analysis explaining the unconstitutionality of the refusal to permit Dylan Fredette to form the club. According to the firm, refusal to approve the club based on its message is “impermissible” under the First Amendment.
“Denying a pro-life club on the basis that it would be too controversial constitutes an impermissible viewpoint-based restriction,” the Thomas More Society wrote.
The society cited the 1965 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., in which students sued their school district for violating their right to expression by wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.
“A school may not censor student speech where its only concern is the ‘mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint,’” the Thomas More Society wrote, quoting Tinker.
Furthermore, the Thomas More Society pointed out that students retain their First Amendment rights while at school.
“Students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate,” the society wrote, echoing the words of Justice Abe Fortas, the Supreme Court Justice who delivered the opinion of the Court in Tinker.
The Supreme Court stated in Tinker that “state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution.”
The Court indicated that students are “entitled to freedom of expression of their views” unless there are “constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech.”
Possible reasons to limit student speech include, according to four separate Supreme Court landmark decisions, when the speech “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others” (Tinker), is “vulgar” or “offensive” (Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser), promotes “illegal drug use” (Morse v. Frederick) or is “sponsored by the school” (Hazelwood School Dist. V. Kuhlmeier).
Thomas More Society Special Counsel Joan Mannix noted that the Fredette brothers’ rights to form the club are also protected under RRMS’ own policy, which reads, “Education is founded on the process of inquiry and analysis, of acquiring and imparting knowledge, and of exchanging ideas. Therefore, students have the right to express opinions, to take stands, and to support causes, publicly and privately.”
The Thomas More Society also took issue with Kitts’ assertion that forming the club would be unfair to people “on the other side of the issue.”
“The additional assertion that a pro-life club is impermissible because other students have not expressed interest in establishing a ‘pro-abortion club’ is as ridiculous as conditioning the ability of students to form a Fellowship of Christian Athletes club upon the concurrent formation of a Fellowship of Atheist Athletes club,” the society wrote.
RRMS does have a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Club, a Pay it Forward Club, a Native American Club, a National Junior Honor Society Club and a Chess Club.