August 8, 2017
Last week, the federal district court for southern Indiana entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting Pike Township Schools from assessing a facilities use fee to the Child Evangelism Fellowship to hold Good News Club meetings in classrooms after school. In Child Evangelism Fellowship v. MSD Pike Township, the federal court held that the school corporation’s board policy governing assessment of facility use fees lacked sufficient specificity to guide when to or not to charge a use fee. The court concluded that the lack of specificity likely created unlawful viewpoint discrimination.
The undisputed facts show that Pike Township Schools allowed the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other after school student groups to meet at an elementary school building, free of charge. The Good News Club also met at the same building but was required by the school to pay a $45 facility use fee for each meeting. By permitting the Scouts and other student groups to meet, a limited public forum was created, which requires that the school corporation remain viewpoint neutral in allowing access to school facilities by student groups. Pike Township Schools argued that it invited the Scouts to meet at the elementary school, but did not invite the Good News Club, which justified charging the fee. The school corporation could not point to any policy or guideline that supported that position. Noting that administrators could not even clearly and consistently articulate that alleged standard, the district court rejected the school’s argument.
The court held that schools may be justified in limiting what groups can meet and topics discussed in a limited public forum, but to do so, administrators are not allowed to exercise unbridled discretion in making a decision. The school corporation must be guided by “narrowly drawn and reasonable criteria for distinguishing between groups.” The court noted that the school policy, which is the standard NEOLA policy 7510, and supporting administrative guidelines, provided no such criteria. Consequently, the court entered the preliminary injunction, enjoining the charging of any usage fee to the Good News Club until the school corporation adopts sufficiently specific policies and administrative guidelines.
In light of this decision, you should review your policies concerning student group use of your facilities, making certain that your school corporation spells out reasonable criteria to decide when an outside student group can or cannot use your facility or when they will be charged a fee. You do not want to wait until a controversial student organization seeks access to determine your ability to limit, in some, its access.
If you have any questions about the preliminary injunction or would like a copy of the court’s written order, please contact us.
Warrick & Boyn, LLP, is a full-service law firm in Elkhart, Ind., that practices in all areas of business and corporate law. Areas of practice include commercial litigation, creditors’ rights and bankruptcy law, labor and employment law, defense litigation, securities law and regulation, worker’s compensation defense, education and school law, EEOC law, employee benefits law and pension plans, environmental law and regulation, tax and estate planning, municipal law, and property and real estate law. The firm’s clients are located primarily in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan, and most of the attorneys are licensed to practice in both Indiana and Michigan.