The following is an advisory from our union’s general counsel related to HISD policy related to employees speaking publicly about their working conditions and/or making comments using social media. Click here to read the full counsel memo.
The First Amendment allows citizens to speak their minds on any topic they choose, with some limitations, without fear of government intervention. A public school district is a governmental entity, and it cannot infringe on our right to free speech. The district’s policy is a lawful policy if it is enforced in a lawful manner. In other words, the district cannot use the policy to fire teachers and/or staff personnel simply because they do not like the content of their speech.
The policy is clear that an employee who chooses to exercise their First Amendment right to speak out on a matter of public concern cannot:
- violate state or federal law;
- HISD Policy; or
- Interferes with the employee’s ability to effectively perform their job duties.
Anyone the district feels has violated any of these three areas above is subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination. The problem with the policy is its guidance is rather slim. It applies to the public use of electronic communication. The third one is the hardest to police in my view as it is almost completely subject to the whim of the administration.
Here is our best advice, when a member chooses to speak out on a matter of public concern they need to:
- Type it on a Word document first for editing.
- Stop, think, and let it marinate for a bit.
- Review the post and make sure that it is what you want to say and it is professionally written.
- Any communication should state explicitly that you are speaking out in your individual capacity as a private citizen and member of the community.
- Do not tie your post(s) to your employment with the school district.
- Do not put your employment with the school district on your social media accounts.
- Make your contacts and details about you private.
- Never post during work hours, only during off-duty time.
- If you post pictures of yourself in protest, do not have work shirts on.
- Do not give the district the ability to tie your speech to the workplace by time, place, or manner.
- It does not matter if your comment(s) is in disagreement with what the administration’s position; however, be the biggest professional in the room at all times.
- Don’t use foul or offensive language.
- If you feel that it is your First Amendment right to use foul or offensive language in your post, and it does, do not use the name or likeness of your school or district in any form or fashion in the post.
- NEVER use personally identifiable information about students in a post.
- NEVER make fun of a student(s) in a post.
If any HFT member finds themselves in the crosshairs of the HISD administration regarding their social media post(s), they need to take steps to protect themselves. First, they need to screenshot the post(s) to ensure that they are secured for evidence later. Next, they need to contact their union representatives BEFORE they respond to any request for comment or statement regarding their post(s). This is what membership in our union is for; it is our hope that every member will let HFT assist them through an investigation like this.
Teachers and staff working for an independent school district do not give up their right to free speech; however, employees should not leave their common sense at the door. Your right to exercise free speech is your right independent of the workplace.