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Fargo students say rights violated as district denies anti-abortion clubs

Student Brigid O’Keefe is seen Wednesday, April 8, 2015, at Fargo North High School. She wants to start an anti-abortion club at the school. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 2 / 2

FARGO – Two students say the Fargo School District violated their constitutional rights by not letting them start anti-abortion clubs at local high schools.

This allegation was detailed in a letter the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit Chicago law firm, sent Wednesday to Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Schatz on behalf of sophomores Brigid O'Keefe of North High School and Katie McPherson of Davies High School. The letter asked the school district to reverse its decision and recognize the clubs.

"We have our First Amendment rights, so we're going to stand by them and for them," O'Keefe said. "I hope the school district makes the right call on this."

In September, McPherson and other students applied to form a club called Davies Teens for Life. O'Keefe and other North students applied in January to start a club called Spartans for Life.

The school district ended up classifying both clubs as "outside agencies" in February, the letter said. This meant the clubs were given limited access to classrooms for meetings, but could not list events in school announcements, put up posters or use the schools' names in their group names, according to the letter.

In explaining its decision, the school district cited a policy on "Solicitation by Outside Agencies," the letter said. The policy says, in part, that "Students will not be exploited by the distribution of materials for the purpose of advertising or promoting private business."

Jocelyn Floyd, an attorney at the Thomas More Society, said the school district is misapplying the policy.

"Public schools are required by law to treat all student groups equally," Floyd said in a statement. "However, the School District and administrators at Fargo North and Davies High Schools are treating pro-life students as second class citizens, forcing them to abide by a policy that was designed to protect students from exploitation by businesses, not to censor the students' own free speech."

In a statement, the school district said it's taking the allegations in the letter seriously.

"The letter has been submitted to the District's attorney for review. Once the District's attorney has fully reviewed the matter, the District will be in the position to respond to the assertions in the letter," the statement said. The school district declined to comment further.

Fargo School Board President Robin Nelson said the board was not involved in the district's decision regarding the clubs. "It has not risen to a board-level discussion at this point," she said.

Nelson, who's publicly advocated for abortion rights, said she doesn't have an opinion on whether the district should let students form anti-abortion clubs.

The clubs in Fargo would have come under the umbrella of Students for Life of America, a nonprofit organization based in Spotsylvania, Va. The organization has helped start over 700 anti-abortion clubs at high schools and colleges around the country, according to the group's website.

Tom Ciesielka, a spokesman for the Thomas More Society, said the law firm came to the defense of high school anti-abortion clubs last year in Tacoma, Wash., and in Spotsylvania.

Ciesielka said there are no plans right now to file a lawsuit against the Fargo School District, which has been asked to respond to the law firm's letter by April 17.

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