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Domestic News | November 28, 2012

The Christmas tree's constitutional protection

Free speech

College reverses course after insisting students remove all references to the Christian holiday from its tree fundraiser

Dave Scharton Sr. of Prunedale, Calif. holds his granddaughter Sophia Scharton while looking for a tree to cut down with his family at Warren Church's Christmas Tree Farm in Royal Oaks in rural Monterey County, Calif. on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/ Monterey County Herald, David Royal)

A North Carolina community college has backed off its demand a student group selling conifers traditionally decorated in December must refer to them as 'holiday trees.'

Administrators at Western Piedmont Community College told members of BEST Society earlier this month they could not use the word "Christmas" in their announcement about the tree sale, the proceeds of which will be used to support Angel Tree.

On Tuesday, lawyers with legal coalition Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sent a letter to the school, warning administrators they had violated the students' First Amendment rights by censoring the content of their message. On Wednesday morning, the school re-posted a press release announcing the sale on its website, with a headline that reads "WPCC Club Sells Christmas Trees!!"

"It's ridiculous that anyone would have to think twice about using the word 'Christmas' as part of a Christmas tree sale," said Matt Sharp, one of the ADF lawyers representing the group. "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."

According to the letter ADF sent the school, BEST Society members submitted a marketing request for the Christmas tree sale in mid September. The college, in Morganton, gives all student groups the opportunity to have events promoted on campus monitor screens, a marquee, the school newsletter and in a press release on the school's website. The groups are allowed to submit their own text for the messages. BEST Society, a group that promotes sustainable technology and alternative energies, wanted their announcement to read "The BEST Society will be selling Christmas Trees."

When the announcement appeared in school newsletter Pioneer Press on Oct. 29, the wording was correct. But when it appeared on the school's website on Nov. 1, "Christmas trees" had been changed to "holiday trees." Several community members complained about the wording and told club members they would not buy trees from them because of it.

Community Relations Director Libby Barger told BEST Society President Trudy Pascoe the wording had been changed because the school could not market the trees in association with a Christian event. Barger told WORLD on Campus the school made a mistake and after doing further research on the matter corrected it. The school fully supports its students selling Christmas trees, she said.

Altering the announcement's text violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits universities from censoring the speech of student groups based on the content or viewpoint of their expression, ADF lawyers warned the school: "WPCC's removal of all references to Christmas in BEST's advertisements because of the religious message conveyed in the advertisements is blatant viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment."