NSBA Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Protect School District's Right to Manage Classroom Teacher Speech


Alexandria, Va. - June 21 -- The National School Boards Association has filed an amicus brief that urges the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the right of government agencies, including public school districts, to effectively manage their workforce without employees raising complaints of possible First Amendment violations.

The case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, involves First Amendment protection for public employees' speech while on the job.  In 2004, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively ruled that any public employees' job-related speech made at work on a matter of public concern is protected by the First Amendment.  The NSBA amicus brief  asks the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court ruling.

"We believe it is extremely important that school boards retain their longstanding discretion over classroom speech that is directed to impressionable students," said Anne L. Bryant, NSBA executive director.  "School boards have a responsibility to help influence and shape our young people's lives.  It is crucial that boards also have the authority to make sure that classroom teaching is consistent with the district's curriculum."

NSBA supports First Amendment protection for public employees, including teachers, when they are speaking as concerned citizens outside the classroom.

The amicus brief points out that schools have been at the center of the public employee free speech debate for more than 35 years since teachers are, by the nature of their job, paid to speak.  However, the courts traditionally have deferred to a school district's obligation to determine what may be taught in the classroom and at school activities.

"The lower court ruling could undermine schools' ability to manage their employees and implement the curriculum by creating the presumption that virtually all public employee speech is automatically entitled to First Amendment protection," said Julie Underwood, NSBA general counsel.  "When a teacher speaks in the classroom during school hours it is as a public employee and not as a citizen.  The First Amendment simply does not cover this form of expression."

The  amicus brief  cited several examples where teachers, if the lower court ruling were to stand, could use the classroom as a platform for their own agenda without fear of discipline. Classrooms could be turned into free-for-all debates where teachers would be able to persuade students on various sensitive topics without regard to school curriculum.

"Schools would be severely restricted in fulfilling their mission of educating all students if everything teachers say in the classroom raises First Amendment issues," Underwood said.  "Every personnel action taken by a school board, including disciplining or terminating employees, could be transformed into a constitutional crisis."

Underwood said that regardless of the facts of this case, school boards could be forced into spending a substantial amount of time and taxpayer money to resolve a claim that should not even be protected by law.

The National School Boards Association, a federation of state school boards associations representing more than 95,000 local school board members, closely monitors the courts and regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs in cases that affect the nation's 50 million public school students.

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