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Free Speech Rights of Public School Teachers

Speech Outside of School

Teachers do not forfeit the right to comment publicly on matters of public importance simply because they accept a public school teaching position. Teachers cannot be fired or disciplined for statements about matters of public importance unless it can be demonstrated that the teacher’s speech created a substantial adverse impact on school functioning. A teacher's off-campus statements regarding the war or participation in an off-campus political demonstration are not acceptable bases for job discipline or termination.

Speech Inside the Classroom

A teacher appears to speak for the school district when he or she teaches, so the district administration has a strong interest in determining the content of the message its teachers will deliver. While courts sometimes protect the academic freedom of college and university professors to pursue novel teaching methods and curriculum, these principles do not apply with equal force to K-12 teachers. It does not violate a teacher's free speech rights when the district insists, for example, that she teach physics and not political science, or that she not lead students in prayer – even though both have the result of limiting what the teacher says in the classroom.

Washington courts have upheld the authority of school districts to prescribe both course content and teaching methods. Courts in other jurisdictions have ruled that teachers have no free speech rights to include unapproved materials on reading lists.

Although the boundaries are not precise, there are limits to a school district's ability to control teachers' controversial speech in the classroom. Courts have sometimes ruled that schools may not punish teachers for uttering particular words or concepts in class that are otherwise consistent with the school curriculum, where the school has no legitimate pedagogical purpose for the restriction, or where the restriction harms students' ability to receive important ideas that are relevant to the curriculum.

A school district might choose not to include discussion about a controversial issue in its curriculum and direct teachers to avoid the topic unless it arises through student contributions to classroom discussion. Depending on the circumstances, a court might well approve such a rule. This assumes that the school is neutral in its implementation of the rule. If a school permits anti-war lesson plans but forbids pro-war lesson plans, such action would raise questions about viewpoint discrimination.

Teachers' Clothing

In the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case, the U.S. Supreme Court established that public school students have the right to wear armbands in class as an expression of their views on topics of public concern. This right may be limited only if there is good reason to believe that the speech would cause a substantial and material disruption to education or violate the rights of others. Washington courts have not considered the question, but courts in other jurisdictions have differed over whether teachers have the same right as students to display personal political messages on their clothing. A court ruled that a New York teacher could not be fired for wearing a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War because the armband had caused no classroom disruption, was not perceived as an official statement of the school, did not interfere with instruction, and did not coerce or "arbitrarily inculcate doctrinaire views in the minds of the students." On the other hand, in another case a court upheld a dress code that prevented teachers from wearing political buttons in the classroom because school districts have legitimate authority to "dissociate themselves from matters of political controversy."

Depending on the precise form of message displayed on the teachers' clothing, a school may have legitimate concern that a teacher's display of a political message is more likely than a student's to disrupt the school's intended educational message. For example, a school intending to educate students about the benefits of racial tolerance would find its message disrupted by a teacher wearing a Nazi-style armband with swastika.

Classroom or Office Decoration

A school district's control over curriculum would also apply to classroom decorations, posters, or educational displays. A Washington court would most likely conclude that a school district could direct teachers to remove political signs from the classroom.

Decoration of office spaces assigned to individual teachers or professors and not generally open to the public will depend on the policies established for each building. Most government buildings impose greater restrictions on the decoration of areas open to the public, while leaving greater leeway for decoration of individual workspaces.

Workers with exterior windows may wish to put display signs in the window visible from the outdoors. This raises the question of whether the exterior view of an office window is more like office decoration or more like posting on a wall. Courts would most likely uphold a school's rules regarding the exterior appearance of a building.

Bulletin Boards

Bulletin boards or similar spaces may be reserved for the school's own messages and kept off-limits to the opposing views of staff. But if a bulletin board is opened to public use, the school must remain neutral, allowing individual messages regardless of viewpoint.

On-Campus Conversations with Colleagues

School administrators cannot impose overbroad or viewpoint-based rules that restrict how teachers speak with each other during breaks or during casual conversation, unless it can be clearly shown that the speech would be harmful to workplace functioning.

On-Campus Demonstrations or Meetings Open to the Public

Public school property is often made available to community groups for meetings or demonstrations. The right of teachers to speak about matters of public concern should not be limited simply because the event where they wish to speak is held on school grounds.

If the event appears to be more school-related than community-based (such as an anti-war rally attended only by students during the school day itself), a principal may be justified in considering teacher participation as part of the curriculum. Even for clearly non-curricular events, it may be desirable for teachers to make clear that they are participating as individuals and not as representatives of the school.