An elementary school principal in Spartanburg County, S.C., did not violate the First Amendment rights of a student by refusing to include the student’s essay on LGBTQ equality in an essay booklet created by the class, a federal appeals court has ruled. The court said the principal had a legitimate educational reason under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988).

The controversy involved a fourth-grade class project at Anderson Mill Elementary School that required students to write an essay addressed to society. The essays were to be compiled in the class’s booklet. Student R.R.S. wrote her essay on LGBTQ equality, because her maternal grandmother is a member of the LGBTQ community. 

Principal Elizabeth Foster told R.R.S.’s fourth-grade teacher not to include R.R.S.’s essay because the essay topic “was not appropriate.”  R.R.S. then submitted another essay, which addressed bullying.  

R.R.S.’s mother, Hannah Robertson, filed a federal lawsuit, alleging a violation of her daughter’s First Amendment rights, on March 6, 2019.  

On March 15, 2019, Foster wrote a letter to Robertson, indicating that she had changed her mind and would publish both of R.R.S.’s essays.  However, Robertson asked that the original essay be excluded, citing concerns about her daughter’s privacy.

Robertson then filed an amended complaint, alleging not only a First Amendment claim but also state-law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

A federal district court dismissed the claims. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this dismissal in its March 2, 2021, decision in Robertson v. Anderson Mill Elementary School. 

The appeals-court panel noted that R.R.S.’s essay was part of a class assignment and, thus, was considered school-sponsored speech under the Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood. In Hazelwood, the Court held that school officials do not violate students’ First Amendment rights if they have a legitimate educational reason for censoring school-sponsored or curricular speech.

“Given that a copy of the essay booklet was to be placed in the classroom for students to read and discuss, Principal Foster’s concern about the age-appropriateness of the essays contained in the fourth grade class’s essay booklet was pertinent,” the appeals court wrote.

Robertson also had argued that Foster had engaged in viewpoint discrimination by targeting her daughter’s speech for its viewpoint on LGTBQ rights. The appeals court recognized that neither the U.S. Supreme Court or the 4th Circuit had addressed whether viewpoint discrimination is allowed under the Hazelwood standard. Viewpoint discrimination is a narrower subset of subject-matter or content discrimination and is considered more problematic in First Amendment law.

However, the appeals court panel found that Foster’s reasons for censoring the essay were not viewpoint-based. Instead, the court said the principal’s “justifications’ illustrate that Principal Foster was averse to the subject of LGBTQ rights appearing in the essay booklet.”

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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech(2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).