N.Y. teacher had First Amendment right to protest in parked car

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The president of a teachers’ union had a First Amendment right to protest in a parked car in front of a middle school, a New York state appeals court has ruled.

In March 2007, several teachers picketed outside Woodland Middle School in the East Meadow Union Free School District during collective bargaining on a new contract. When it rained one day, the teachers — including the teachers-union president, Richard Santer — parked legally on the street and displayed their signs. The teachers did not block the curbs where parents dropped their children off for school.

However, the school district charged Santer with creating a health and safety risk by taking the parking places, which forced some parents to drop their kids off in the street because of traffic congestion at the curbs. The school district said the situation presented an “otherwise avoidable and unnecessary health and safety hazard.”

The matter went to arbitration, where Santer contended that he had engaged in First Amendment-protected activity. The arbitrator disagreed and fined him $500. He unsuccessfully appealed to the New York Supreme Court, a trial court.

Santer then appealed to the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, 2nd Department, which reversed the previous ruling in its Dec. 19 opinion in In the Matter of Santer v. Board of Education of East Meadow Union Free School District.

The appeals court emphasized that public school teachers do not lose all of their First Amendment rights when they take public employment. The court applied the famous Pickering balancing test from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Pickering v. Board of Education (1968). Under the Pickering test, a public employee must speak on a matter of public concern for his or her speech to be protected, and those free-speech rights must outweigh the employer’s disciplinary interests.

“Santer’s ‘speech’ regarding collective bargaining issues indisputably addressed matters of public concern,” the appeals court wrote. The appellate court also determined the school board failed to show that “Santer’s exercise of his First Amendment rights so threatened the school’s effective operation as to justify the imposition of discipline.”

Santer did not violate any parking rules and moved his car before 8 a.m., the start of the school day. “Moreover, no school official asked the teachers to move their cars during the protest, and no student was injured as a result of the protest,” the appeals court wrote.

The court concluded: “The disciplinary measures imposed on Santer would likely have the effect of chilling speech on an important matter of public concern — the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement.”

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