ACLU to school district: Unmuzzle teachers and staff

Updated: When the North East Independent School District Trustees meet on Aug. 10, teachers and staff from the district have a First Amendment right to participate in the public discusion about whether to rename Robert E. Lee High School, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Lee High School Senior Kayla Wilson proposed the change and has gathered nearly 10,000 signatures on her online petition at Dozens of people are expected to attend the NEISD meeting to voice their opinions. (See meeting schedule and location here.)

Confederate Mosaic at Robert E. Lee HS

The ACLU said NEISD trampled on the First Amendment rights of teachers and staff when it issued a blanket gag order forbidding them from talking about the school name change in public or on their personal social media accounts.

“Sometimes democracy is contentious, but that’s no reason to shut down debate on issues of public concern,” said Rebecca L. Robertson, legal & policy director for the  ACLU of Texas.

Wilson started a petition in June after seeing former Mayor Juliån Castro say on his Facebook page that the school's name should be changed. Her petition to rename the school after slain civil rights leader George W. Lee has drawn national attention. Click here to see the petition and watch NOWCastSA video of Wilson and San Antonio City Councilman Roberto Treviño talking about the issue.

NEISD issued a memo  July 27 “hereby directing that employees refrain from engaging in these communications regarding the naming of the school, or any related topics. The District understands that employees have First Amendment rights, but such rights must be balanced against the District's compelling interest in making sure there are no disruptions to its schools, and the law allows for limitation of District employees' speech when it causes any such disruption.”  The memo specifically warned employees against  “Internet postings, social media sites, and other electronic communications.”  Scoll down to read the full memo.

The ACLU’s Robertson said the NEISD directive goes too far.

”Although government employers like the school district can restrict what an employee says in her official capacity, school employees nevertheless retain the First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern,” Robertson said.

“The school district’s professed interest in avoiding disruption must be weighed against the community’s interest in having a robust dialogue on the workings of its school district,” Robertson said.

Some 500 NEISD teachers and support staff are represented by the American Federation of Teachers, which also takes issue with the directive.

“We completely agree with the ACLU that this violates teachers' and support employees’ First Amendment rights,” said Tom Cummins, Executive Director of North East Federation of Teachers. “This memo covers everything from when employees are on the job to their free time to when they are at home.

“Teachers don’t lose their First Amendment rights when they sign up to be a teacher," he said. “This blanket gag order, in our view, is totally improper.” 

Cummins said the memo also contradicts the NEISD Mission Statement: "We challenge and encourage each student to achieve and demonstrate academic excellence, technical skills, and responsible citizenship.” 

“Responsible citizenship is taking part in public discussion in the public square,” Cummins said. “What this (memo) is doing is saying to employees, ’No, you cannot speak in the public square.’ “

NEISD Spokeswman Aubrey Chancellor said the district stands by the memo. "The Supreme Court has ruled that if an entity can establish that there has been a disruption due to speech by a public employee, then the government employer can regulate that speech," Chancellor said in a statement.

"The District has already sustained substantial disruption due to public comment regarding this issue on social media. We are simply trying to make sure that we minimize any further disruptions over this issue that could bleed over into the start of the new school year," she said.

NEISD Directive to Employees