Consider the following scenarios: A high school teacher places a Black Lives Matter sticker on her desk to let students know she is against racism. A teacher down the hall hangs a Pride flag from his door to signal to LGBTQ students that his classroom is a safe space. Does the school district have a right to establish policies prohibiting teachers from displaying these pro-inclusive symbols?
Recently, school board members, school administrators, teachers and parent groups have been battling over what free-speech rights teachers have when they decorate their classrooms. Many of these disputes are making their way to courtrooms across the country.
Below, we take a look at some of the different disputes, explain a Pennsylvania case that sheds some light on the issue, and offer guidance to school officials caught in the middle of the debate.
Disputes In Different States
In classrooms across the nation, teachers and school officials are butting heads over whether pro-inclusive symbols are political statements that should be banned or permissible free-speech statements.
Indiana, Nevada, and Utah school districts have banned teachers from displaying Black Lives Matter symbols or the Pride flag.
One Texas school district fired a teacher after she refused to stop wearing a Black Lives Matter face mask.
A teacher in Iowa was put on administrative leave after he gave a presentation about himself that included the Pride flag.
Closer to home, the Central Bucks School District recently banned the display of Pride flags in classroom, and many other local school districts are grappling with similar concerns over critical race theory and gender identity policies.
A Look at Learnball
One case that is instructive for Pennsylvania school administrators is Bradley v. Pittsburgh Board of Education, 910 F.2d 1172 (3d Cir. 1990). The case involves two teachers who used a sports-based classroom management technique called Learnball. The class was divided into teams and given rewards such as radio playing and shooting baskets with a foam ball.
The school board disagreed with the use of Learnball in the classroom and asked the teachers to limit its use. One of the teachers was fired for his refusal to stop using Learnball, and the other claimed she was harassed.
They sued the school board, arguing that the ban violated their free-speech rights under the First Amendment. Specifically, they alleged that Learnball is a “classroom management system” and not a teaching method.
One of the teachers said Learnball allowed her to express her personality to her students.
The school board countered that Learnball is a political statement.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania denied a motion for a preliminary injunction stopping the board from banning Learnball.
A federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision, saying that no court has ever ruled that teachers’ free-speech rights include selecting their own curriculum or a classroom management technique such as Learnball.
“Although a teacher’s out-of-class conduct, including her advocacy of particular teaching methods, is protected … her in-class conduct is not,” the court said.
The court concluded that the school board is “entitled” to determine that Learnball “is not an appropriate pedagogical method.”
Bottom Line for Schools
In general, teachers have limited rights regarding speech in the classroom. While they may have the right to speak as private citizens on issues of public concern, statements they make in the classroom do not enjoy the same protections.
Signs teachers display in their classrooms are likely to be viewed as speech they are making during their job duties because a captive audience of students would see those signs during instructional time. As a result, school bans on political messages in classrooms are likely to be upheld by the courts.
The question of what exactly constitutes political speech is another contentious issue. Some say Pride flags are a symbol of inclusivity, while others say they are political speech.
While these issues are making their way through the courts, school administrators should review their policies and decide how they will respond to different ways staff (and students) may express their personal beliefs.
They should make sure their policies are enforced equally and applied to all viewpoints to prevent claims that the policies are discriminatory. For example, a policy that singles out only one point of view could be problematic.
Schools with questions should contact their legal counsel or an education attorney at KingSpry.