Experts: Silencing Teachers 'Probably Legal,' But May 'Chill' Rights | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Experts: Silencing Teachers 'Probably Legal,' But May 'Chill' Rights

Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, chairs the House Education Committee and wants to stop schools employees from stating "political" opinions during school hours.

Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, chairs the House Education Committee and wants to stop schools employees from stating "political" opinions during school hours. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Retired Ridgeland High School band director Keith Moffat says the Mississippi Legislature is part of the reason he no longer works in the public-school system.

"There's a definite conspiracy to dismantle and destroy public education in Mississippi. Keep 'em dumb, and they're easier to control," 56-year-old Moffat told the Jackson Free Press. "(That's) one of the main reasons I retired after 30 years of this nonsense."

Moffat, like scores of other Mississippians, doubts the constitutionality of House Bill 49, which would forbid administrators, school personnel and employees from using any school-related resource in order to participate in the political process. If this legislation passes, offenders would be subject to a $10,000 fine.

"There is no difference between an elected official paid by the public spouting their opinion or even promoting themselves for an election and a teacher, administrator or secretary voicing their opinion. They are all paid with public funds," Moffat said.

But Mississippi College School of Law professor Matt Steffey says the bill doesn't throw up any of the normal "red flags." When asked if he believes the bill is legal, Steffey says the short answer is yes, but warns that it has the potential to "chill" First Amendment rights, depending on how it's enforced.

"This has come up for decades regarding public employees because the government has two relationships with an employee: one between citizen and government, where they can't touch your First Amendment liberties at all, and in their role as employee," Steffey said in a phone interview with the Jackson Free Press.

"The wording of the bill seems designed to follow constitutional standards at least in its broad outlines, because presumably, during the workday, while performing your official duties, they are permitted to require you to be working the whole time you're at work—just in the same way anybody's employer can say, 'You can only use the phone and the computer, et cetera, for company business,' Steffey said.

Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum, a news and journalism museum based in Washington, D.C., agrees, as The Hechinger Report reported in a 2015 article.

"It's reasonable for the state to say that you can't use your position or government resources to pursue a political agenda," Paulson said in the article. "But you can't limit the expression of a private citizen just because they also happen to be a state employee."

Shannon Eubanks, principal of Enterprise Educational Center, wrote in a Jackson Free Press opinion piece last week that it is valid that teachers should not use class time for anything non-educational, but says that these bills "go well beyond flyers and phone calls."

"The truth, and hypocrisy, of the matter is that this is about stifling speech that the Legislature disagrees with," Eubanks wrote. "The campaign to pass Initiative 42 was the most organized educators in Mississippi had been in 30 years. And legislators, who often forget they serve at the will of the voters and instead act as if they are members of the aristocracy, were taken aback when educators had the audacity to challenge their votes."

Eubanks also brought up whether this legislation would also affect charter schools, which are billed as public schools.

"Didn't a group of charter students and faculty members come to the state capital during 'normal operating hours' to lobby support for school choice?" Eubanks asked. "Moore was quoted as being very enthusiastic with these groups; would he be so if a local school in Rankin County bussed a fifth-grade class to the capital to push for more school funding?"

Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, the author of House Bill 49, says ideology isn't his motivation for the bill. He said he is trying to protect teachers and school employees, some of whom he says felt coerced by administrators and school personnel into voting—or not voting—a particular way regarding Initiative 42. Moore also said he would review the bill to make sure it falls within legal guidelines.

"Oh, we're going to look at it again," he said after the House Education Committee meeting last Thursday when the Jackson Free Press mentioned those concerned about the legality of the bill.

Steffey agrees that Moore's bill has the potential to protect the civil liberties of teachers, who in the case of some political issues might be subject to bullying from more powerful administrators if their superiors do participate in that type of political coercion.

Moffat, the former Ridgeland band director, said that as a seasoned teacher, if he were still working as an educator, he wouldn't mind speaking out about particular issues, but could certainly understand a new teacher electing to stay quiet.

The Mississippi ACLU spoke against the legislation in a statement. "HB 49 is as an attempt to silence and intimidate teachers through a proposed law banning political activity during school hours and imposing a penalty of $10,000. A schoolteacher has the right to identify and express his or her own point of view in the classroom as long as it is indicated clearly that it is the teacher's own. Where parents, as individuals, or parent or other community groups raise the question of suitability of any material, out of concern for maturity level, morality, patriotism, literary merit, etc., the decision as to its acceptability should be vested in a representative professional committee."

Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow for the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Email her at [email protected] Read more education coverage at jfp.ms/education.

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