Four Tips Every South Dakota School Administrator Should Know About Employee Political Activities

The ability to express political ideas, gather with other citizens, and engage in political activity are among the freedoms that American citizens zealously protect. However, these rights are not boundless, particularly in a public workplace like a school. School boards and district administrators sometimes struggle to balance these basic rights with the need for a calm, safe, and respectful workplace.

Here are four tips that every South Dakota school administrator and board member should know about employees engaging in political activities.

Tip #1 - May a school board prohibit employees from engaging in political activities on their personal time?

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that public school teachers, like other public employees, do not forfeit their constitutional protections when they take a government job. Among the constitutional protections provided are those established under the First Amendment, including the freedom of speech.

Acting in their individual capacities on their personal time, school employees may engage in political activities, including things like attending a political rally, participating on a campaign committee or phone bank, posting campaign signs, signing petitions, registering voters, and advocating for a particular political position.

However, school boards may prevent employees from exercising these rights in a way that suggests a school district’s endorsement of a cause, candidate, or issue. For example, a school district may adopt a policy that prohibits an employee from using the school district’s name or resources in connection with the employee’s personal or unofficial activities and may require employees to make it clear that their affiliation with the school district does not imply the school district’s approval or disapproval of an expressed view. 

Tip #2 - May a school board prevent employees from engaging in political activities at school? 

Yes, if the activities (for example, distributing campaign materials or making speeches) cause disruption to the school, violate board policy, or cause intimidation or harassment to other employees. The school board as an employer has an interest in avoiding disruption to the school district and preventing the intimidation or harassment of its employees. Also, if the employee is engaging in political activities during his or her working hours instead of performing work, the school district could take disciplinary action.

Tip #3 - May a school board prohibit a teacher from sharing his or her personal political viewpoints with students during instructional time?

Yes. The Supreme Court has stated that when public employees make statements in their official capacities, they are not speaking as public citizens for First Amendment purposes, and their comments are not isolated from regulation by the employer. Since teachers making statements during instructional time are speaking in their official capacities, the First Amendment does not protect their comments. As a result, school boards may adopt policies that prohibit employees from discussing their personal political views with students during instructional time.

Tip #4 - May a teacher wear a political button, pin, or T-shirt in the classroom?

The Supreme Court has stated that a school district may refuse to sponsor speech that might reasonably be perceived to “associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.” On this basis, a school board may adopt a viewpoint-neutral dress code policy that prevents its employees from wearing political buttons, pins, or T-shirts at work during work hours. Enforcement of the policy would avoid creating an impression that the school district endorses a particular party or political view. 

For more about the political activities of school district employees, read Chapter 27 of The South Dakota School Law Deskbook