Justices question using schools to talk politics
QUEARY; The Associated Press
The News Tribune
Washington State Supreme Court justices grilled an attorney for unionized
teachers Tuesday over a challenge to state guidelines about using
public school grounds and resources to spread political messages.
The 76,000-member Washington Education Association is trying to preserve
a King County Superior Court ruling from last year that struck down
the state Public Disclosure Commission's guidelines on political activity
The lower court ruled that school employees - including union activists
- enjoy free-speech rights to discuss political issues and distribute
campaign materials on school property on their own time, and to use
the school's Internal mail and e-mail systems to send campaign-related
information, including endorsements.
The Public Disclosure Commission appealed, arguing the ruling is a
violation of a voter-approved state law barring the use of public
buildings and resources for political activity.
Several justices seized on that point in Tuesday's oral arguments.
"Aren't you guaranteeing them access to the teachers that the
rest of us don't have?" Justice Barbara Madsen asked Harriet
Strasberg, the WEA's lawyer.
Strasberg said the commission's guidelines - adopted in 2001 - infringe
on the free-speech rights of the union's members to discuss important
issues of public policy and exchange literature in school hallways
and classrooms before and after school.
"What this case is about is prohibiting private discussions,"
Strasberg said. "They have chilled speech. Our longstanding practice
has been the hand-delivery of political material."
Assistant attorney general Nancy Krier, arguing for the disclosure
commission, contended that the guidelines - and the law they interpret
- are aimed at preventing the improper use of taxpayer-purchased resources
for partisan politics.
"Should we be giving private gain, private benefit, to one side
of a campaign over another?" Krier asked, characterizing the
case as a wholesale attack on the constitutionality of the law. "There
is no heightened constitutional right for public school teachers to
use public schools for private purposes."
Strasberg argued that the union's uses of school buildings and mail
systems isn't targeted by the law, which has been interpreted as applying
to campaign activity that involves measurable spending of public money.
Chief Justice Gerry Alexander asked whether the lower court's ruling
opened the door to overt politicking in schools.
"What's to prevent a union representative from coming into a
classroom between classes and putting campaign literature on the desk?"
Strasberg responded that the union's practice is to pass out materials
and talk among its membership before and after school, when students
are not around.
"These are discussions between private employees and not within
the realm that the Public Disclosure Commission can regulate,"
But some of the justices questioned how binding the guidelines are
in the first place, and asked why they didn't follow the law to the
letter and ban all political activity in schools instead of allowing
it in staff rooms.
"Explain to me how that makes any sense at all," Justice
Richard Sanders asked.
The court will likely take several months to rule.
The case is Washington Education Association v. Washington Public
Disclosure Commission, No. 72877-1.