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Political campaign buttons banned in schools?

Educators, take note: Chancellor’s Regulation D-130, issued in 2004, requires that you “while on duty or in contact with students… maintain a posture of complete neutrality with respect to all candidates.” And New York is not the only place where schools and universities are limiting how teachers can express their political views, according to PREA Prez Fred Klonsky.

But the United Federation of Teachers objects to some of the limits on teachers’ freedom of speech, according to an email Jonathan received from UFT Director of Staff LeRoy Barr:

The DOE is disputing the right of our members to wear political buttons in schools. Our view is that there is a long line of First Amendment cases that hold that as long as individuals (including public employees) are not causing disruption or engaged in active electioneering or proselytizing, they have a right to exercise their freedom of speech at work, which includes wearing political buttons.

Wearing an Obama or McCain button in class certainly wouldn’t convey a neutral posture, but what about a button on one’s jacket, worn only outside of school, if a student happened to ride the same bus? And is the Chancellor’s Regulation legal, or, as the UFT asserts, would case law support a teacher’s right to freedom of speech in the workplace, as long as it doesn’t disrupt teaching and learning?

The Washington State ACLU doesn’t provide a clear answer in an overview of teachers’ free speech rights:

A court ruled that a New York teacher could not be fired for wearing a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War because the armband had caused no classroom disruption, was not perceived as an official statement of the school, did not interfere with instruction, and did not coerce or “arbitrarily inculcate doctrinaire views in the minds of the students.” On the other hand, in another case a court upheld a dress code that prevented teachers from wearing political buttons in the classroom because school districts have legitimate authority to “dissociate themselves from matters of political controversy.”

The first case mentioned, regarding the anti-war armband, is James v. Board of Education of Central District. The appellate court distinguished the case from an earlier one, Tinker v. Des Moines, which established the right of students to wear symbolic armbands, as long as it does cause disruption, “because a teacher may have a far more pervasive influence over a student than would one student over another.”

The court said it must balance the protection of “impressionable children from such dogmatism,” with the need to protect the teacher’s first amendment right to free speech, and concluded that since the teacher did not proselytize, and students did not claim to be bothered by the armband, it would be considered protected speech. Furthermore, the court declared, “It would be foolhardy to shield our children from political debate and issues until the eve of their first venture into the voting booth. Schools must play a central role in preparing their students to think and analyze and to recognize the demagogue.”

The second case mentioned, regarding political buttons, seems to be California Teachers Association v. San Diego Unified, which took a clear stance in support of a school board’s right to require neutrality during work hours:

The Teachers Association challenged a school district policy that prohibited political buttons at work sites during work hours. The Court said that schools retain authority to stop speech that might reasonably be perceived to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy. [xii] The decision permitted the school to ban teachers’ buttons inside the classroom. However, it allowed teachers to wear the buttons outside the classroom, where there were no elements of power or influence over the students.

I’m still waiting to find out what prompted the UFT’s email — was it election season in general, or a specific incident or new deveopment?

Teachers and legal experts, feel free to weigh in on this one in the comments.

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