December 09, 2021

School board introduces employee expression policy

Staff protected unless speech harms ability to perform job, district operations

Employees of the Newton school district are free to express themselves when speaking as individual citizens but they could face disciplinary action, including termination, if their speech has an adverse impact on district operations or negatively impacts their ability to perform their job, newly proposed policy states.

Tim Bloom, director of business services for the Newton Community School District, said the employee expression rules are a new, mandatory policy that “identifies and clarifies” the First Amendment rights of staff and how to utilize their freedom of expression. Bloom said the policy also outlines increased protections.

“This gives us guidance, as well as how to balance and enforce employees’ expressions,” Bloom said.

School board member Travis Padget said the proposed policy focusing on employee expression — which passed its first reading on Oct. 11 — has a lot of nuance to it, so much so that he elected to read the policy word-for-word for listeners on Zoom and on Facebook Live.

“I think it’s interesting enough and nuanced enough that we should read it out loud for people to listen to it, because it’s very nuanced about freedom of speech in there,” Padget said. “…If the board doesn’t mind me reading it out loud, just to listen to it. Because I think you hear differently than you read it.”

The Newton Community School District Board of Education “has an interest in maintaining an orderly and effective work environment” while also balancing the First Amendment rights of staff. The policy states when staff speak within their official capacity, their expression represents the district and may be regulated.

When an employee of the school speaks as an individual citizens on a matter of public concern, the First Amendment protects that person’s speech. The policy also cautions employees about expression on social media, particularly because the community may not be able to distinguish staff’s speech as private citizens.

Regardless, a worker’s expression on social media platforms may lead to disciplinary consequences if it interferes with district operations.

The new policy also safeguards staff members from being retaliated against when they act to protect students for engaging in free expression or when they refuse to infringe on students engaging in free expression, provided the expression is permitted by law and board policy.

So long as those employees are acting within the scope of their professional ethics, they will not face any adverse employment action, the policy states.

Padget speculated the policy may result in a number of court cases, but perhaps not specifically in Newton. Oftentimes freedom of speech can get confused with professional abilities, Padget said. By reading the policy aloud, the school board member believed it could be better understood.

“It was a little bit shocking to me, but glad to see it some kind of writing,” he said.

School board member Robyn Friedman said she thought the same thing and noted the policy intentionally speaks to a lot of gray areas, which are “ripe for continued conversations.” Still, Friedman is glad to see the policy in writing. The school board will have to review a second reading before adopting the policy.

Read the full policy (404.14: Employee Expression) here:

The board believes the district has an interest in maintaining an orderly and effective work environment while balancing employees First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and diverse viewpoints and beliefs. When employees speak within their official capacity, their expression represents the district and may be regulated. The First Amendment protects a public employee’s speech when the employee is speaking as an individual citizen on a matter of public concern. Even so, employee expression that has an adverse impact on district operations and/or negatively impacts an employee’s ability to perform their job for the district may still result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.

Employees who use social media platforms are encouraged to remember that the school community may not be able to separate employees as private citizens, from their role within the district. Employee expression on social media platforms that interferes with the district’s operations or prevents the district from functioning efficiently and effectively may be subject to discipline up to and including termination.

A district employee who acts to protect a student for engaging in free expression or who refuses to infringe on students engaging in free expression; and who is acting within the scope of their professional ethics will not be retaliated against or face any adverse employment action based on their behavior provided that expression is otherwise permitted by law and board policy.

If the board or court finds an employee that is subject to licensure, certification or authorization by the Board of Educational Examiners discriminated against a student or other co-employee, the board will refer the employee to the Board of Educational Examiners for additional proceedings as required by law and which may result in discipline up to and including termination.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.