Student wins battle with school over right to preach on campus
by Sarah Padbury
Posted 6/19/15, 12:05 pm
About a month before graduation, a federal judge in Washington state gave one high school senior an early present—victory over school administrators who suspended him for preaching the gospel and handing out tracts.
Last fall, Michael Leal told Q13, a Seattle-based Fox News affiliate, he was suspended three times in October 2014 for preaching and handing out Bible tracts during school hours at Cascade High School in Everett, a city about 30 miles up the coast from Seattle. In an online video, Leal said his first suspension was for publicly preaching and giving out tracts at a school event, the second was for handing out tracts during lunch, and the third was for giving a tract to a student during class free-time.
Leal contacted Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) to see if the suspensions violated his constitutional rights. The organization, well known for its religious liberty advocacy, told Leal he had the same right as any other student who wanted to share his passion with classmates, be it football or the gospel, during school hours.
The U.S. Supreme Court declared 45 years ago in the prominent Tinker case that students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse door to become “closed-circuit recipients” of state indoctrination. Unless it “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others,” students are guaranteed freedom of expression for their views, including in the hallway, at lunch, in the classroom, or on the athletic field.
“We believe if anyone’s point of view is restricted, that hurts everyone’s free speech,” Leal’s attorney, Conrad Reynoldson, told Q13 Fox News.
A PJI investigation revealed the school district had a policy that restricted students’ speech. The rules allowed student literature to be distributed only at the school entrances and exits, before or after school, and required the content be written by a student. The policy not only banned students from passing out Bible tracts, but copies of the Constitution, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, an upcoming movie flyer, or anything else not written by students.
PJI wrote a letter to the district, asking administrators to change the policy, but the district stood by its guidelines. Leal filed suit.
In addition to violating the district’s rules on passing out literature, officials accused Leal of disruptive behavior. On Oct. 1, 2014, Leal attend a school bonfire and preached an “amplified 20-minute extemporaneous sermon,” according to The Seattle Times. School officials asked Leal to stop, and he did. He then moved to the school dance, where he publicly preached again and was asked again to stop. The lawsuit acknowledges Leal stopped preaching when officials told him they had called the police.
Leal is known for his street preaching. Several YouTube videos feature him walking the streets and crying out for repentance with a bullhorn. One video, filmed on May 23 by a friend, shows him walking down the middle of the street along Bellingham’s Blossomtime Parade route before the event began. He warned listeners of God’s wrath for sin and urged repentance while carrying a large sign that read, “The wicked shall be turned into hell” and “Jesus wants to save you from sin.” A few adults and children walked with Leal, passing out tracts, carrying signs, and wearing shirts with slogans such as “Obey the Holy Bible,” “The kingdom of heaven is near,” and “Jesus hates sin.” One sign proclaimed, “Why is it a hate crime to warn sinners of the wrath of God?”
A federal judge in February upheld the district’s policies on literature distribution. But on May 29, Judge Thomas Zilly ruled the policy barring students from distributing materials created by non-students would not survive First Amendment scrutiny. Zilly ordered Leal’s suspensions expunged from his record and awarded him $1 in damages. The judge also ordered the district to pay PJI’s attorneys’ fees, according to The Seattle Times.
But Zilly allowed the district to retain the right to limit where and when students may hand out literature. Prior to the ruling, the school agreed to create a “free speech zone” near the mascot statue, where students can publicly express their views, The Seattle Times reported.
“Today’s win is a well-deserved graduation present to our client,” PJI President Brad Dacus said.
Sarah is a writer, editor, and adoption advocate. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Sarah and her husband live with their six teenagers in Castle Rock, Colo.