Do outside groups have the right to distribute material on campus?

Generally no. Adults from outside the school do not have an automatic right to distribute materials to students in a public school. May school officials allow them to do so? Although this area of the law is somewhat unclear, it is fair to say that schools should exercise great caution before giving an outside group access to students during the school day. Giving some groups access opens the door to others. Moreover, if a religious group is allowed to actively distribute religious literature to students on campus, that activity is likely to violate the establishment clause.

At least one lower court has upheld “passive” distribution of materials in a secondary school by religious and other community groups. Note that in this case the group left materials for students to browse through and take only if they wished. Also, a wide variety of community groups were given similar privileges, and the school posted a disclaimer explaining that the school did not endorse these materials. Under those conditions, this court allowed passive distribution, but only in the secondary-school setting (see Peck v. Upshur County, 4th Cir. 1998, although other federal courts have rejected this distinction).

Schools may announce community events or meetings of groups — including religious groups — that work with students. All of these groups should be treated in the same way. The school should make clear that it does not sponsor these community groups (see Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Stafford Township, 3rd Cir. 2004).

Category: Freedom of Religion

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