Proposed changes to Loudoun County Public Schools Policy 7560, “Professional Conduct,” have stoked debate as to whether employees’ First Amendment rights are at stake.
According to Loudoun County School Board documents, the school system’s Department of Human Resources and Talent Development, as well as the eponymous board committee, have proposed the policy be expanded to exhaustively encompass expectations of professionalism, equitable treatment and recognition of proper employee-student boundaries.
Critics of the new language have focused particularly on a section of the draft policy in which employee speech or actions “that are not in alignment with the school division’s commitment to action-oriented equity practices, and which impact an individual’s ability to perform their job responsibilities or create a breach in trust bestowed upon them as an employee of the school division” are subject to disciplinary action.
Assistant Superintendent of HRTD Scott Ziegler presented the draft policy during the Sept. 22 School Board meeting as an information item, saying its intended purpose is to “align our aspirational goals as codified in [Superintendent Eric Williams’s] equity statement, the Comprehensive Equity Plan and the newer plan to combat systemic racism.”
“In most cases, employee speech is protected, but in the employer-employee relationship, not all speech is protected by the First Amendment,” Ziegler said. “In the private sector speech is not protected, but because we are in the government sector, we do a test when we are deciding whether or not speech can be limited and falls under this policy.”
He added LCPS staff will analyze each report of speech or conduct that potentially “disrupts the school or the work environment” on a case-by-case basis.
“That allows the opportunity for the administration to look into the situation. That does not necessarily mean that there was anything that was wrong, because a parent can interpret it one way, a teacher may interpret it a different way,” said board member Jeff Morse (Dulles District), who chairs the board’s HRTD committee. “Does it necessarily indicate an offense? No, but it does provide context in which an offense can be evaluated.”
In a recent letter to the Times-Mirror, Leesburg’s Thomas Cavallo compared the draft language — particularly a note that employee speech should focus on, among other things, “maintaining efficiency of the school system” — to the 1968 Supreme Court case Pickering v. Board of Education.
In that case, an Illinois teacher was fired after publishing a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the conduct of the area Board of Education, with the stated grounds for dismissal deeming the teacher’s words “detrimental to the efficient operation” of the school system. The majority court opinion held that the teacher’s words were ultimately protected speech.
“Should any staff member be dismissed due to these new policies, LCPS would and should be subject to wrongful dismissal law suits,” Cavallo wrote. “Who is in a better position to inform the general public of the impacts of LCPS policies on students and staff [than] the very staff who are charged with implementing those policies?”
Cavallo also deemed a reference in the draft policy to employees’ First Amendment rights “halfhearted.”
Ziegler told the Times-Mirror Wednesday that LCPS is not attempting to limit employees’ ability to voice conflict with the school system.
“There are incidents when a government agency can restrict the speech of its employees, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here at all,” he said. “Public employees have the right to free speech as private citizens and to criticize the bodies that they work for.”
Another letter to the Times-Mirror claimed the aforementioned “action-oriented equity policies” are a mere application of the controversial critical race theory, claiming that theory posits the First Amendment is “designed to empower white supremacy and white privilege,” and thus deeming the proposed policy change a “dangerous restriction of Constitutional rights that has no place in Loudoun County.”
Ziegler said he has a “differing opinion” to those who consider matters of race within schools to be in the political realm, though he added such a statement does not necessarily reflect the stance of LCPS.
He further said that LCPS Policy 7524, “Staff Participation in Political Activities,” bars staffers from openly supporting any single political party, cause or movement in a school setting.
“All that has to be done outside [school],” Ziegler said. “If somebody put up a Biden sticker on their car or in their front yard, the division has no interest in that.”
During its Wednesday meeting, the HRTD committee voted to officially request the School Board send the draft policy back to committee in order to discuss the draft policy further.
The proposed changes to LCPS Policy 7560 are available to view in full at bit.ly/2I8Pnuz.