Politics in the Classroom
Your AllyBy: Paul Tapp, ATPE Managing Attorney
“The country has never been so divided.” “Political involvement has never been so important.” You have probably heard both these statements over the past few months. The midterm elections are now over, but politics has not gone away.
The ATPE Member Legal Services Department has been fielding more calls lately from members who have found themselves in hot water after a political discussion erupted in their classroom. Because politics has become both more heated and more commonly discussed in the classroom, we thought it was a good time to go over the rules. Please note as you read this, I am talking here only about political expression or comments about the government. The First Amendment also protects religious expression, but the rules there are very different.
ATPE members’ opinions span the political spectrum. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, your political opinions are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. But those protections are not absolute. Negative employment consequences can occur when educators engage in or, in some cases, even allow a political discussion to take place in their classroom.
There is nothing more sacred than the protection of political expression in the United States. The US Supreme Court confirmed in 1968 that educators do not lose their free speech rights when they cross the schoolhouse door. However, the Court also held that limitations to that right existed, stating that when “the school functioning or the teacher’s performance is impaired or that the superior-subordinate relationship is undermined, then sanctions, including dismissal, might appropriately be brought against the employee” (Pickering v. Board of Education).
In 2006, the Supreme Court arguably created a huge hole in public school educators’ First Amendment protections. In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Court ruled that comments made by a government employee as a part of that employee’s job were not protected by the First Amendment. The Garcetti case involved a prosecutor, not an educator, and the comments at issue were not about the government itself—the thing the First Amendment was designed to most protect. But the rule that political expression within the course of one’s job is not covered by the First Amendment has been successfully applied to Texas educators, though again, not in a situation where the comments were about the government itself.
What does that mean for you in your classroom? It is important to understand the limits that the Supreme Court placed on your First Amendment protections. How parents or students react to what you say often determines whether you can be disciplined. If your political comments impair the school’s functioning, for instance, by causing parents to ask that their children be moved to another class, then you can be disciplined—even if your comments would otherwise fall under free speech protections.
Following Garcetti, educators can find themselves in a “catch 22” position. If the comments are made as a part of their job duties, such as a government teacher’s comments about the government, then under Garcetti, there may be no First Amendment protection at all, since classroom instruction is clearly within a teacher’s job duties. On the other hand, if the educator’s comments don’t relate to instruction, such as a math teacher talking about the election results, the teacher could arguably be disciplined simply for not doing what they are supposed to be doing—providing instruction in their subject.
While educators do have rights to express their views, those rights are restricted once they walk into their classroom.
The legal information provided here is accurate as of the date of publication. It is provided for general purposes only. Individual legal situations vary greatly, and readers needing individual legal advice should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members may contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department.