Court leans toward school rights to curb campus campaigning

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal court has rejected a request by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, a group arguing its rights were violated while campaigning at a northern Idaho school on Election Day.

The court last week denied the committee’s request to grant a permanent injunction that would have forced the Coeur d’Alene School District to allow groups to hand out election materials on school grounds even if they interfered with kids getting to school.

The court didn’t rule on the merits of the case, which continues. But the court found that the group was unlikely to win the case because, among other things, it misinterpreted Idaho’s campaign-free-zone election law.

READ: Kootenai Co Republicans sue Coeur d’Alene schools for removing them from poll sites

Specifically, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee argues that it can hand out election materials anywhere on school grounds as long as the group is more than 100 feet (30 meters) from the building where voting is taking place.

While campaigning is allowed at schools, The Coeur d’Alene School District contends it can prevent electioneering within 100 feet (30 meters) of campus grounds if groups are interfering with kids going to class.

“While Plaintiffs seemingly believe that Idaho (law) is meant to protect their right to electioneer 101 feet (30 meters) or more from the polling place, the language of the statute instead illustrates that it is meant to protect voters from interference,” Chief U.S. District Court Judge David C. Nye wrote.

Katharine Brereton, an attorney representing the school district, said the district is confident going forward that it will win.

“Judge Nye recognized that children have an interest in safe, peaceful education environments, and the children’s interest in that environment outweighs the potential minimal harm to people who choose to engage in electioneering efforts on school property on Election Day,” she said.

Jeremy Morris, an attorney representing the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, declined to be interviewed on the phone but said he would respond to emailed questions. Morris didn’t immediately reply to those questions on Tuesday.

The lawsuit stems from the Nov. 3, 2020, general election when a number of people, according to the lawsuit, set up at the Hayden Meadows Elementary School in Hayden and handed out sample ballots and talked to people about the election, encouraging them to vote for Republicans.

Officials at the 350-student school became concerned that some individuals were taking up limited parking spots by setting up lawn chairs and a cooler, court documents said, and interrupting the free flow of traffic by talking to drivers entering the parking lot and potentially making kids late for school. They were asked to move.

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But the group said in the lawsuit they were asked to move due to “viewpoint discrimination,” a violation of their rights under the U.S. Constitution.

However, Nye found that the group wasn’t asked to move due to the types of material they were handing out, and that the group failed to prove otherwise.

There is no “evidence that Plaintiffs were asked to move out of the Hayden Meadows parking lot because they were associated with the Republican Party,” Nye wrote.

Nye also wrote that the areas of the school grounds where the electioneering was taking place are not public forums, as the group contended, but a limited public forum, based on previous decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“As a limited public forum,” Nye wrote, “the District may lawfully exclude Plaintiffs or others from school grounds on election day as long as it has a reasonable and viewpoint neutral reason for doing so.”

It’s not exactly clear how many public schools serve as polling places in the state, a decision made at the county level.

“Public schools have often been used across the state as polling locations,” said Idaho Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck. “Counties coordinate with those different school boards. However, that varies on a county-by-county basis.”