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The principal of Boca Raton Community High School did not violate a student’s First Amendment freedom of speech rights when he made her remove religious messages and symbols that she had painted on a school mural, an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously has ruled. The court’s Oct. 12 decision in Shelda Harris Bannon v. School District of Palm Beach County affirmed the ruling of U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley in West Palm Beach, Fla., who dismissed a suit brought by the mother of student Sharah Harris against the Palm Beach County school district and principal Ed Harris. “Here, the district court correctly held that school officials had a legitimate pedagogical concern in avoiding the disruption of the school’s learning environment caused by Sharah’s murals,” the three-judge panel wrote in its per curiam decision, in which Judges Susan Black, Rosemary Barkett and Frank Magill concurred. The case arises from a school beautification project at the school in February 2002. While the school underwent remodeling, construction crews erected 50 white panels to keep students from the construction area. Students were invited to paint murals on the panels. Teachers warned the students their artwork could not be profane or offensive, but did not specifically prohibit religious content. Sharah Harris, a 17-year-old senior and member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, decided to participate in the project. She and other members of the religious club painted messages on the panels such as “Jesus has time for you; do you have time for him?” “God loves you” and “What part of ‘thou shalt not’ didn’t you understand?” The murals included religious symbols such as images of the cross. When the principal saw them, he told Sharah she would have to paint over the religious messages and symbols because he didn’t want anyone to be offended or think the school endorsed a particular religion. Sharah’s mother filed a federal suit challenging the decision on First Amendment grounds. In May 2003, Judge Hurley granted summary judgment in favor of the school district. Hurley ruled that the school grounds were not a public forum protected by freedom of speech provisions and that the principal had a legitimate educational objective in maintaining the separation of church and state. The 11th Circuit also upheld the principal’s actions, saying he had no obligation to allow students to “use the walls of a public school to proselytize.”

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