There is a debate going on in the blogosphere that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Teachers in New York want to be able to wear campaign buttons in school and the administration there is prohibiting that, based apparently on a longstanding policy that has not been consistently enforced across schools (pdf). Yet Leo Casey is arguing here and here that there is a First Amendment right at stake here and that applied consistently this “no button” rule would mean no newspapers in school because they actively endorse candidates. Sherman Dorn is arguing much the same. Times columnist and critic Stanley Fish supports the ban and gets into more detail.
But this isn’t some abstract debate or free for all, in the K-12 space teachers enjoy neither unfettered academic freedom nor an unfettered right to political expression in school. That’s not an assertion, there is a case law on this. In general the courts have been reluctant to uphold restrictions on political activity by educators outside of schools but in school is another matter.
Essentially any restriction on political activity in school needs to be based on a legitimate threat to orderly school operations. So teachers campaigning in school is out but, for instance, the California Supreme Court did not uphold a school district’s refusal to allow teachers to circulate a petition on education funding amongst themselves. Bottom line is that public employees don’t surrender all of their constitutional rights in the workplace but they are subject to limits on some.
So, all the First Amendment hysterics aside, the issue here is not whether the school administration can do this without doing violence to the Constitution, it’s whether they should.
Perhaps one can reasonably argue about whether open support for a candidate is a legitimate threat to the effective operations of schools, at least strictly defined. Still, it does seem to me that in a place where young people are placed in the custodial care of a public institution, limiting any chance they might be coerced — or think they are being coerced — by political causes seems a good policy. Put another way, since showing support for political candidates is not integral to the education process (Fish rightly notes that you can show support for the importance of voting in a non-partisan way), this is a good place to err on the side of caution. And, I can’t help but note the irony of an organization (in this case Casey’s UFT) predicated on the idea that when the rights of one are violated the rights of all are, not recognizing this from the perspective of students who might hold a minority political viewpoint and feel intimidated by those in a position of authority over them — their teachers.
Why a “no button” standard is not inconsistent with having newspapers in school is pretty obvious. Teaching about points of view is not the same as having a teacher endorse a point of view. To use other First Amendment terrain it’s why, for instance, teachers can teach about religion without teaching religion, but shouldn’t show up in school with a T-shirt proclaiming their faith in Jesus as their personal savior. You don’t need to wear a button for a campaign or candidate to teach students about the political process and a good social studies teacher could today discuss the other night’s debate, the arguments, etc…without showing their own political cards.
When I taught high school students and college students I always enjoyed it when one told me they could just tell that I was some crazy ‘winger or lefty, it meant I was doing my job to challenge them and focus on helping them figure out what they think, not what I do. The importance and benefits of a neutral approach should be obvious, too, especially at the K-12 level.
This is a brilliant political move for the union, if you think about it. Even if they lose the case, they can make it look like they are strong Obama supporters. News coverage of the flap can help make everyone forget the millions that the union spent only a few months ago trying to take Obama out of the race.