Idaho judge ungags teachers

IDAHO – An Idaho state court judge ruled in October that a school district’s policy prohibiting teachers from talking with the media during the school day was unconstitutional.

The policy was created by administrators last year during teacher contract negotiations the judge described as “acrimonious.” Officials defended their policy, claiming that teacher contact with news media regarding the labor dispute had created significant disruptions at school.

In his ruling, Jefferson County Education Association v. Board of Trustees, No. CV-97-377 (Idaho, 7th Dist., Sept. 15, 1998), Judge Brent Moss struck down a Jefferson County School District policy that prohibited teachers from calling any media or from being interviewed during working hours. The policy also required that administrators pre-approve all press coverage.

Moss said the policy implied that teachers could not speak to the media during lunch breaks or other times when they were not teaching. He also found the provision requiring prior approval of all press coverage to be both vague and overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.

“Disallowing teachers the right to speak with media during those times in the day when it would not cause classroom interruption or interfere with school activities would violate the Constitution…. Because the term ‘working hours’ is vague, it may have the effect of restraining teachers from exercising their right to free speech,” the judge wrote.

Private schools are not affected by this ruling and can generally retain significant control over the speech activity of their employees.

Also, courts have made clear that while public employees do have the right to speak out about “matters of public concern” they can still be disciplined for publicly criticizing their schools or bosses for personal issues, which would, for example, include most personal employment disputes.