To members of BEST Society, a student club at Western Piedmont Community College in North Carolina, it sounded like a nice idea. In order to raise money for Angel Tree, an organization that “connects incarcerated parents with their children through the delivery of Christmas gifts,” they would sell Christmas trees to the public during the holiday season.
The warm-hearted plan took a Grinch-like turn, however, when school administrators unilaterally removed the words “Christmas trees” from the club’s online announcement and replaced them with the words “holiday trees.”
After the removal of "Christmas," BEST, which stands for Building Energy Sustainable Technology, received complaints from community members and lost several sales, thus hampering its fundraising efforts.
On Nov. 28, lawyers for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal coalition, sent a letter to school officials on behalf of the club demanding that the school stop censoring the students’ speech, citing First Amendment free speech protections. Part of the ADF letter reads as follows:
"The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment prohibits public universities from censoring the speech of student groups based on the content or viewpoint of their expression WPCC’s removal of all references to Christmas in BEST’s advertisments because of the religious message conveyed in the advertisements is blatant viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment."
The school responded quickly by reversing course. News site The Daily Caller reported that ADF received word from the school within hours that it had “committed an error" and was "going to take steps to immediately remedy it.”
A news release posted to the school’s website Wednesday morning ran with the headline: WPPC Club Sells Christmas Trees!!9 comments on this story
“They had been under the impression that the law required them to censor the word Christmas,” J. Matthew Sharp, legal counsel for the ADF, said. “Our letter offered clarification that just the opposite was true, that they have to respect the rights of the club and its members to sell these Christmas trees and to call it a Christmas tree sale.”
Sharp said, "Not only is it perfectly constitutional to use the word 'Christmas,' it is unconstitutional to prohibit use of it. This is another perfect example of the immense misunderstanding that far too many college officials have about what the First Amendment truly requires."
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David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.