Federal court’s ruling on teacher First Amendment rights is a wake-up call for Nevada union officials

It is disappointing when image-conscious school administrators seek to sanitize students’ writing about sensitive subjects. It is doubly disappointing when the pressure comes from — of all places — a teachers’ union, the people who should appreciate most the perils of a school where controversies cannot be publicly discussed.

Because teachers are taking their jobs into their hands when they blow the whistle on problems within their schools, an uncensored student media can be their best ally. Unlike teachers, students have the benefit of First Amendment protection when they expose inadequacies in schools — which is why an editorially independent student journalistic voice is so vital to the well-being of the entire school community, teachers included.

This is why the actions of the Churchill County Education Association in Nevada are so dangerously short-sighted. If the union gets its way, the student newspaper at Churchill County High School will be prohibited from writing about a controversy — already well-known and widely discussed within the school — over a choir teacher’s handling of students’ entries in a singing competition.

Just this week, a federal appeals court in New York reemphasized the limits of teachers’ ability to safely complain about their working conditions. In Weintraub v. Board of Education, a Brooklyn elementary-school teacher claimed that he was harassed, subjected to false accusations, and ultimately terminated in retaliation for filing a grievance that challenged his principal’s refusal to discipline a dangerous child.

In a 2-1 ruling issued Jan. 27, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that teacher David H. Weintraub’s grievance was not protected speech under the First Amendment. The court ruled that, because Weintraub’s official duties included maintaining classroom discipline, any public comments about that topic were made in his capacity as a government employee, not as a concerned citizen. And because he was acting in his official government role when he lodged the grievance, his supervisors could lawfully discipline him if they disagreed with what he said.

This is not a new or novel legal ruling. Public employees generally cannot complain of unlawful retaliation if they are fired for speech made in their official line of duty. That is true even if — as in Weintraub’s case — the speech was not required as an essential function of his job, nor could it be confused with an official statement on the part of the school administration (since, after all, it was a criticism of the school administration).

The Weintraub case reinforces why school employees have a vital interest in making sure that the student media can speak candidly about what is going on at the school. When conditions in schools are unsanitary or unsafe, student journalists are often the faculty’s last and best defense — which is why faculty members must oppose attempts to muzzle or intimidate student journalists, even when what they write may occasionally sting.

Thankfully, Principal Kevin Lords and his administration at Churchill County High appear to understand both the legal and educational reasons why they can’t substitute their editorial judgment for their students’. We assume that the National Education Association will make its local affiliate aware that the NEA made a strong national policy declaration in 2008 that students must have “the right to engage in robust and uninhibited discussion of issues in the student media.” Grievances of the kind brought in Churchill County are inconsistent with this national NEA policy — and with the safety and well-being of teachers themselves.