Judge finds media gag on teachers is unconstitutional
IDAHO–An Idaho Falls judge in mid-September held that the Jefferson County School District’s policy prohibiting teachers from talking to the media was unconstitutional and violated the teachers’ rights to free speech.
The school district superintendent issued a regulation stating that teachers could not call any media or allow the media to interview them during working hours in the spring of 1997, as contract negotiations between the district and the teachers were taking place. During the negotiations, allegations surfaced that reporters were interviewing teachers during class and disrupting students’ learning. The regulation also required that administrators pre-approve all press coverage.
Judge Brent Moss of the Seventh District Court in Rigby struck down the regulation as unconstitutional. Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Moss held that teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Judge Moss acknowledged that public schools may limit classroom speech to promote educational goals. However, the judge found that the regulation at issue was unconstitutional because the terms of the restriction were too vague and overbroad to let the teachers know what speech was acceptable.
According to Judge Moss, “Because the term ‘working hours’ is vague, it may have the effect of restraining teachers from exercising their right to free speech.” The court explained that a teacher could reasonably understand “working hours” to mean that a teacher could not speak to the media from the time the teacher arrives at school until the time the teacher leaves school. This would include times in the teachers’ day when they are not teaching. Thus, the court stated, the regulation improperly restricted speech during times in the day when teachers’ speech would not interrupt the classroom or interfere with school activities.
Additionally, the court pointed out that the regulation is overbroad because the phrase, “Any media coverage needs to be preapproved,” could be read as requiring teachers to get pre-approval of school administrations before speaking with the press even when not at school.
In November 1997, the Jefferson County Education Association, along with three teachers employed by the school district, filed suit against the school district, members of the school board and the superintendent. The teachers alleged that the school district had breached their duty to negotiate in good faith, in part based upon the regulation on the teachers’ free speech rights. (Jefferson County Education Association v. Board of Trustees; Plaintiffs’ Counsel: John Rumel, Boise)