Orange School Board bars show of employees’ politics
Policy applies to clothes, pins about ballot issues, candidates
Leave the “Make America Great Again” hat at home and do the same with anything else — from T-shirts to lapel pins — that advertises current political candidates, parties or proposals, the Orange County School Board told its teachers and other employees last week.
The board revamped its “political activities of staff” policy, banning “passive political expressions,” such as those conveyed by lapel pins, campaign buttons or clothing. The policy already prevented school employees from taking part in political activities while they were at work or using their positions with the school district to aid political causes.
The new rule aims to curtail problems that cropped up during the 2016 election, school leaders say. The board approved it unanimously at last week’s meeting. “We did hear quite a few complaints of late,” said Chairman Bill Sublette. “And it came from both sides of the political spectrum.”
But some teachers objected to the new rules.
“We, as teachers, don’t like the vagueness of it. What’s a political expression?” said Wendy Doro-
The “political expressions” policy “applies uniformly — right, left, in between. They’re all being curtailed in the same way.” Woody Rodriguez, Orange School Board’s chief legal counsel
mal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association. “It doesn’t say who’s going to decide what’s allowed or not allowed.”
And, she said, “It sends a message to teachers that we don’t respect you as a professional to behave properly in your classroom.”
Doromal said she was not aware of problems during the 2016 election until one of the district attorneys said recently that some teachers at one Orange high school had sparked acrimony by wearing hats from President Donald Trump’s campaign.
John Palmerini, one of the board’s attorneys, told the board last week the policy was crafted in compliance with federal court decisions that determined employers could limit speech in the workplace.
“We feel like we’re on very solid footing,” he added. “We thought this was appropriate, frankly, to keep politics out of the classroom.”
A landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines, famously said that neither “students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” In that case, justices ruled in favor of students who had been suspended for wearing black armbands in school to protest the Vietnam War.
But case law related to teachers’ showing support for political causes at work isn’t as clear, with some courts ruling teachers could be prevented from wearing campaign buttons or T-shirts while on campus, noted the ACLU of Washington in a 2016 paper on teachers’ freespeech rights. Its advice to teachers: “It is best to avoid any appearance that you are advocating a particular religious or political view.”
All of the other school boards in Central Florida ban employees from engaging in political activities while at work, but no others prohibit what Orange now does. The Seminole County School Board policy, in fact, notes that its rule does not apply to “passive political expressions,” such as a bumper stickers, campaign buttons or political slogans on clothing.
Woody Rodriguez, the Orange School Board’s chief legal counsel, said the policy will apply to pins, buttons and clothing that advocate current political candidates or proposals — items on or likely to be on an upcoming ballot — not more general issues, such as gun control, even if they sometimes spawn fierce political debates, and not items worn to support causes, such as pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness.
He said the policy imposes a limit on employee speech for a “good public policy reason” and in keeping with court rulings that have said employers, both public and private, can restrict some political expressions in their workplaces. “It applies uniformly — right, left, in between,” he said. “They’re all being curtailed in the same way.”
As with other district policies, employees could face discipline for violating the new “political expressions” rules.
Gretchen Robinson, a teacher at University High School, spoke against the policy change, telling board members she feared it was “unconstitutionally vague” and could allow administrators to target teachers whose views they don’t like.
Like Doromal, she said teachers already know they shouldn’t impose their views on their students or use their position of authority to try to influence youngsters’ political beliefs.
“This wording suggests, as my colleague said, that we as teachers do not possess the professional judgment to monitor ourselves and take care not to cross a line,” Robinson said. “And I assure you that the great majority of us do.”
Superintendent Barbara Jenkins noted the policy will apply to the district’s 13,500 teachers as well as to 10,500 other employees, “clear up to the superintendent.”