Lawsuit challenges school system’s web use

A South Carolina man is suing his local school system for refusing to post links to pro-voucher internet sites in a case that raises questions about what school districts can promote or exclude from their web sites.  

Randy Page, head of an activist group called South Carolinians for Responsible Government, filed a lawsuit last month after Columbia, South Carolina’s Lexington County School District 1 did not post links to sites advocating school choice side-by-side with web links that school officials publicly support.

The lawsuit is appealing a federal court ruling passed down last July that found Lexington 1 officials were allowed to exclude links to web sites they did not agree with. The Lexington 1 district has links to sites that oppose school-choice options in South Carolina and across the country. Attorneys for Page and the school district argued their cases before a three-judge panel March 20.

Kevin Hall, Page’s attorney, said this week that because Lexington 1 officials included links to sites they support, they should be required to present the opposing views on their taxpayer-funded web site. Page wanted the school district to post links to online articles advocating tax credits to help parents home-school their children or send them to private school. 

"What he’s asking for is equal access," Hall said. "The question is whether the government can discriminate against citizens based on their viewpoint on public policy issues. …Can you pick and choose who you allow access to your [communications] systems, based on whether you like or dislike the viewpoints they articulate?"

David Duff, an attorney representing the Lexington 1 school system, said courts have made it clear that governments are not required to provide outlets for people and groups opposed to the government’s policy stances.

The Supreme Court has ruled that public officials and government agencies have the right to push for policy stances they agree with, without providing opposing viewpoints, he said.

"When the government is communicating its own message, it does not create a forum for debate by those who have an opposing point of view," Duff said.

If the school district were forced to post Page’s web links to pro-voucher sites, Duff said, it could open the door for everyone to demand their views be represented on government-run web sites.

"Where would you draw the line? Every citizen would have a right on any issue to have a link to their blog," he said. "You couldn’t even keep up with it all."

In 2005, the Lexington 1 school board opposed state legislation known as Put Parents in Charge, which would have provided public funding for private-school vouchers.

Fighting for equal access to publicly funded web sites is important as more people go to the internet for their news and information, Hall said. Refusing some points of view, he said, would be equivalent to denying access to public spaces for political demonstrations.

"Today’s electronic media is yesterday’s sidewalk or public street or public park," he said. "The district can choose to educate kids rather than run [its] political propaganda machine."

Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, said he had not heard of any similar controversies involving school system web sites. School officials should be allowed to keep their web sites free from articles directly opposing the school district’s policy stances, he said.

"It seems to me the superintendent and school board members’ first responsibility is to support and defend the positions of the school system in which they serve," Knezek said. "If they felt that there was damaging potential, I would hope they would have the discretion to determine what’s in the best interest of the school district."

If the court sides with Page, school system web sites could be cluttered with various positions on a number of issues, Knezek said–confusing parents, students, and school activists.

"I think we are looking at a really serious problem, because people who come to that web site will believe that’s the position of the school district," he said. "What you’re saying is the school district has lost any sort of option to control the positions they’re taking or the decisions they’re advocating."

Despite the school district’s refusal to post Page’s web links, South Carolina is among those states at the forefront of the school-choice movement. Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, led a charge that allowed school vouchers for South Carolina pre-kindergarten students.

Sanford also helped create a charter school district–allowing parents to transfer their children from assigned neighborhood schools to charter schools–and is pushing to provide vouchers for every student in the state. Sanford has argued in recent years that South Carolina’s largest school districts, which include Columbia, receive much more funding than schools in rural parts of the state. This inequality has left some school districts without the technology, qualified teachers, and resources enjoyed by schools in urban areas of the state, he says. 

Along with many other organizations, teacher unions, including the National Education Association–a union of 3.2 million members–have long opposed school vouchers. Vouchers, opponents say, compete for government funding with public schools, diverting resources and money away from public-school problems such as teacher shortages, overcrowded classrooms, and technology gaps between urban and rural schools.

The court is expected to reach a decision on the Lexington 1 case this summer.


Lexington School District

South Carolinians for Responsible Government

Denny Carter

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