Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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Navigating Politics in the Classroom

This is a turbulent time in our nation’s history. For good or ill, the polarization of politics and the increased level of personal advocacy across the political spectrum have created a volatile mix. The run-up to the upcoming presidential election is unlikely to reduce this.

Educators may wonder what rights they have to express their own opinions. In late June 2020 on the ATPE Blog, we shared guidance focusing on personal speech online (read the post at

We wanted to follow up with additional guidance exploring the issues of politics in the classroom, especially as the election nears.

The Right to Free Expression

Teachers and other school district employees are citizens of the United States and, as such, have legal protection to express their political opinions. Most important in the context of expressing a political opinion is the right to free expression protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Public school teachers and other public school personnel do not lose their First Amendment rights—but First Amendment protections are not absolute and do not apply in every situation. It is important for everyone to know the limits that exist when deciding whether to express an opinion or how to express an opinion, whether on social media, to a group of co-workers, or in the classroom.

The Limits: Disruption and the “Balancing Test”

A teacher or other school district employee is not just a citizen. Even though the First Amendment does apply to political expression made by teachers and other school employees, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled there is a “balancing test” where the public employee’s right to express an opinion is weighed against the disruption at school or work that results from that opinion. For instance, if the teacher’s comment causes a substantial disruption at school, that teacher could experience serious negative consequences, including termination. For example, a district might have a legal basis to take employment action if a teacher’s comments interfered substantially with their ability to teach students successfully or their ability to get along well with colleagues, supervisors, and students’ parents. Parents asking to have their children moved to another class or spending class time debating politics rather than focusing on the curriculum could be considered disruptions that could lead to negative consequences.

Because this legal balancing test depends so much on the reaction to the teacher’s political comments, it is important to be aware of local community standards and expectations. The teacher will not be able to control students’ and parents’ reactions once a comment is “out there.” For the balancing test, the reaction to the comment is practically more important than the comment itself, so everyone should take a moment to think what that reaction may be before exercising their right to express their opinion on a possibly controversial topic.

The Limits: Imposing Opinions on Students

A teacher considering sharing personal political views in the classroom must also consider whether their students are old enough and sophisticated enough to distinguish between a teacher’s personal beliefs, with which students are free to disagree without consequences, and the teacher’s authority to tell students what is or is not true regarding the curriculum. Students learn from an early age they are not free to decide for themselves that two plus two equals five. To avoid violating students’ own First Amendment rights, a teacher must be confident students can distinguish between the teacher’s personal opinion on politics and instructional material they must follow.


District personnel, especially teachers, have the right to have their own opinions and to express those opinions. But they need to recognize when their opinion might be considered controversial and understand that student, parent, or community reaction to their comments can lead to negative consequences.

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. July 2020.

Author: Paul Tapp, ATPE Managing Attorney