Lexington case heads to appeals court

Public schools and government agencies across the nation should be watching a federal appeals court in Virginia today where a First Amendment-free speech case that originated in Columbia will be argued.

At stake is whether individuals should have access to government-sponsored methods of communicating - including the Internet - to convey opposing points of view on public policy.

Randy Page of Lexington, a private-school choice advocate, says Lexington 1 won’t let him use the district’s communication system to reach its audience. Page heads South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a group that lobbies for legislation to give parents tax breaks or state aid for educating their children at home or in private schools.

Lexington 1 used newsletters, e-mails and its web site to voice opposition to legislation that would expand school choice. The Lexington 1 school board took a formal public stand opposing any law that offers tax breaks or diverts money from public schools.

The Legislature has turned back several proposals to create such financial incentives.

A U.S. district court judge in Columbia sided with Lexington 1 in July 2007, but Page is appealing on the grounds its messages opposing private-school choice legislation were conveyed using publicly funded methods.

Kevin Hall, Page’s attorney, said his client’s appeal confronts “the question of whether education bureaucrats can use public funds and public resources to fund a public propaganda machine that perpetuates the status quo.”

“Folks of all political stripes recognize that when government uses public resources to perpetuate itself politically, serious First Amendment questions are at issue,” Hall said.

Defending Lexington 1 is David Duff, who specializes in representing public school systems across South Carolina.

“We believe that government can engage in governmental speech without creating a forum for opposing viewpoints on a matter that is important to (its) mission and purpose,” Duff said.

“They’re trying to spin it as though when government takes a position on a political issue, it should automatically open up a forum for debate,” Duff said.

Page has the backing of conservative political activists that support and campaign for expansion of private-school choice, including the Parents In Charge Foundation headed by New York financier Howard Rich.

Rich and organizations he supports or finances have made contributions to S.C. politicians who support Page’s views.

“Parents in Charge Foundation is assisting Mr. Page because of the fundamental issues that are involved,” Rich wrote in an e-mail. “When government takes on the role of active player in the public debate over policy, free debate is seriously harmed.”

Rich wrote that he is interested in the Page case because “There is a growing tendency for government to dictate the terms of debate” that “we believe is outside its authority.”

Call Robinson at (803) 771-8482.