Orange School Board bars show of em­ploy­ees’ politics

Pol­icy ap­plies to clothes, pins about bal­lot is­sues, can­di­dates

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Leslie Postal Staff Writer

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.”

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