New York state’s highest court has upheld the discipline of teachers whose picketing during the collective bargaining process created a hazardous situation for students arriving at school.

Teachers at Woodland Middle School in the East Meadow Union School District had worked for over two years under an expired contract as the parties had been unable to reach an agreement on a new contract. For over two years the teachers had picketed at the school on a weekly basis, usually by walking with picket signs in the morning before the start of school.

In March 2007, instead of walking on the sidewalk in front of the school, teachers parked their cars on the street in front of the school, where parents typically pulled up and dropped off their children at the curb.  Unable to get to the curb cutouts by the sidewalk because of the parked cars of the teachers, with pickets signs in the windows, parents were forced to drop off their students in the middle of the street. Students were forced to walk in the street between parked cars to reach the sidewalk. Additionally, traffic was snarled by the teachers’ cars, causing sixteen teachers to be late for work.

Teachers who participated in the picketing were disciplined by the school district. A New York appellate court overturned the arbitrator’s decision affirming the district’s discipline. In reversing the appellate court’s decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals first determined that the teachers’ demonstration constituted “speech” subject to First Amendment strictures, and applied the Pickering balancing test concerning speech by a public employee.

While the Court concluded that the teachers’ speech related to a matter of public concern, it found that any protections afforded that speech were outweighed by the dangerous condition created by the teachers’ actions. The Court noted that the manner, time and place of the teachers’ “speech” tipped the balance in favor of the school district, finding that the teachers had intended for their activity to create a disruption, in this case both disrupting the school’s operations and creating a potentially dangerous situation for students.

Public employee speech is protected, particularly in the context of collective bargaining, but not so that it outweighs legitimate concerns about the disruption of the school environment, particularly when student safety is at issue.