The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a South Carolina school district did not discriminate against a local activist when it refused to publish links to school voucher information on its web site.

Randy Page, head of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, filed a lawsuit in March after Lexington County School District 1 did not post links to web sites advocating school-voucher programs. The school system’s web site included links to sites that argued against vouchers in South Carolina and across the country. Kevin Hall, an attorney for Page, did not immediately return phone messages left by eSchool News.

Hall argued this spring that a taxpayer-funded school district web site should be required to post links to online articles that showed both sides of a policy debate.

"What he’s asking for is equal access," Hall said in an April interview with eSchool News. (See "Lawsuit challenges school system’s web use.")

The appeals court ruled that Page’s argument depended on the "implied conclusion that by including a link to another organization’s web site, the school district made the contents of that other web site part of its own web site." Lexington County school officials "sufficiently controlled this channel of communication so that its speech remained government speech, and it did not create a limited public forum by including links to other web sites," the court said in its opinion.

The court ruled that school officials should be allowed to support laws that could have an impact on the school system. The court said it is "appropriate for the school district to defend public education in the face of pending legislation that it views as potentially threatening of public education."

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David Duff, an attorney who represented the Lexington County School District 1, said earlier this spring that legal precedent showed government web sites were not required to promote policy stances that stood directly opposed to officials’ viewpoints. 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 in an earlier interview.

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.

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 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.

Links:

Lexington County School District 1

Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

Page v. Lexington County School District 1 (court opinion)