Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter
Dear Legal Mailbag:
School is back in session and so are those eager parents and aspiring politicians who want to “get involved” and make sure schools aren’t teaching that “secret curriculum” we keep hidden in the old card catalog in the basement.
While I certainly welcome and appreciate parental and community involvement in the school, how do I avoid being used for someone’s political agenda? The last thing I want is for anyone to think that I am showing favor to one candidate over another. We all know how quickly a photograph can be taken and placed on social media. I’d rather just stay out of it all. What can and can’t parents do to advocate for political causes within a school, especially if they are running for office themselves?
Voting Minds Want to Know
Legal Mailbag does not envy the challenges that you face, and there is not a legal solution to every problem. However, there are certain things you can do to avoid your being used as a political prop and your school being used as a staging area for political campaigns.
To be sure, you cannot control what parents and others put on social media (unless the statements are defamatory – see “Legal Mailbag,” December 23, 2020). However, you can communicate clearly that you do not grant permission for parents or others to use your likeness in political advertisements, and you can refuse to pose for any pictures. Such neutrality may be important for you as a school official.
You can (and should) also strictly enforce your school visitor rules. Candidates for political office cannot simply show up and use a school for political purposes. If such candidate has a legitimate reason to be on school property (e.g., as a parent or an invited guest), he or she should be permitted to enter school property for any such business. But that would not be a time for a candidate to be glad-handing or otherwise working the hallway. And if the candidate does not have legitimate school business, you should (politely) inform the candidate that your school is a place of business and that visitors are not generally permitted during school hours.
You and the teachers in your school should also be neutral on political matters in interacting with students and parents. Under the First Amendment, public employees generally have the right to engage in political activity on their own time. However, they do not have the right to engage in political activity on school property during the school day. You can prohibit political buttons and signs in the classrooms, for example. Any such prohibition, however, must be applied in a uniform way to all such buttons or signs.
Finally, you may expect most if not all members of the school community to be respectful of such rules. Your question is timely, and you may wish to communicate your expectations through parent newsletters and faculty emails. By describing and explaining your expectations in advance, you may be able to avoid the awkward situation in which you must confront a teacher or parent and direct him or her to cease and desist from engaging in political activity on school property.