Justices question using schools to talk politics

PAUL 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 in schools.

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?" Alexander asked.

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," Strasberg said.

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.


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