By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
A recent court ruling reaffirms the rights of teachers to engage in political activity in the workplace during non-duty time — but stipulates that teachers are not guaranteed the right to use school mailboxes to urge the support or defeat of a candidate for public office.
The California Supreme Court ruled against the San Leandro Teachers Association (SLTA) in June, upholding the district's right to bar literature from school mailboxes containing recommendations for or against candidates for public office.
The ruling does not apply to literature that merely "encourages" members to become involved in upcoming elections and informs them how to do so. Also, unions may use school mailboxes to distribute literature urging members to engage in political action besides casting a ballot, such as contacting legislators about pending legislation. For example, a newsletter or flier that says "Write to your congressman about No Child Left Behind reauthorization" would be permitted because it is not related to any specific election campaign.
The decision stems from an incident in 2004 when SLTA members put newsletters in member mailboxes urging them to support association-backed school board candidates in an upcoming election. The San Leandro Unified School District told the union that state law barred use of district mailboxes for such usage. SLTA filed a complaint to the Public Employment Relations Board, which was dismissed, so SLTA sued in Alameda County Superior Court, where a judge ruled for the union in 2006. This decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals before going to the state's high court.
The Supreme Court ruling says that districts are not "compelled" to exclude candidate endorsements from school mailboxes. However, if a district chooses to exclude such endorsements from school mailboxes, the court believes that it constitutes a "reasonable regulation" based on Education Code section 7054 (a), which prohibits the use of a school district's "funds, services, supplies, or equipment" for urging the support or defeat of political candidates.
While the ruling upholds the right of a district to exclude political endorsements from mailboxes, it did not rule that districts must do so.
Under the ruling, the district may refuse unions the right to place political candidate campaign literature in school mailboxes — as long as the district does not allow any other group or individual to leave such candidate endorsement literature in school mailboxes. If, however, a district allows anyone to distribute a candidate endorsement in school mailboxes, it must allow everyone else the same right.
What the ruling means to CTA chapters
If a school district allows anyone to distribute literature through the school mailboxes that contains political endorsements, it must allow the union to use mailboxes for that purpose, too. If one side is allowed to and your association is not, contact the CTA Legal Department.
Union literature containing political endorsements may still be left on tables, chairs or countertops in faculty lounges.
Union literature about ballot propositions or initiatives may be entitled to greater protection. So if your school district refuses to allow your union to distribute such union literature in the school mailboxes, contact the CTA Legal Department for assistance. (The court reserved judgment on whether school districts may refuse to allow unions to distribute literature in school mailboxes endorsing ballot propositions rather than candidates, noting that another provision of the Education Code provides greater protection for such activity.)