This article referred to a previous version of this bill, which would have made political activity a misdemeanor. The current bill still includes the misdemeanor language, but applies it to a different situation. Ann McColl, an education law attorney and writer for EdNC, says that including the threat of arrest on an education bill is a strange and confusing tactic.
Your child sits in their high school 10th grade Civics and Economics class. The teacher, dressed in a red shirt, is teaching North Carolina state learning competency goal #4: “the learner will explore active roles as a citizen at the local, state, and national levels of government.”
The door opens, and two police officers enter. They place the teacher under arrest.
Lawmakers are considering this law, which would effectively serve as a “gag rule” during work hours for teachers, superintendents, and principals, and would forbid them from “engaging in political activity… while on duty.” Violation “shall be a Class 1 Misdemeanor.”
In theory, the law makes sense. You want the employees of the local school boards to be doing the work that they are paid to do; you do not want them doing other jobs while they are supposed to be teaching. But this law isn’t making it a crime for someone to teach and simultaneously promote their lawn care business (which we also don’t want). The law makes it a crime when that “other activity” is political.
Which means there is more to it than punishing teachers for not doing their jobs.
“What makes it difficult,” says Ann McColl, an education law attorney and writer for EdNC, is “the notion that promoting public education has become a political statement.”
McColl speaks to the “chilling effect” that this bill could have on teachers. When classroom speech is being policed to the point where a civics teacher might go to jail for talking about writing their elected officials, the climate of fear that would ensue would ensure faculty silence on all fronts. Because who knows what constitutes criminalized speech? What types of speech cross the line? The bill is unclear.
For example, there is a line in the law about the instruction of “civic literacy,” but then stipulates that it is a crime to “encourage student advocacy for or against issues of local, state, or federal policy.” Does that mean if a student asks you how to write to one of their lawmakers because they are against a certain bill, are you not allowed to show them how to find the address? Maybe? But you don’t want to get in trouble, so you better not. That’s what “chilling effect” means.
Policies such as these may, in fact, violate First Amendment rights. We saw this in Pickering v. Board of Education in 1968. In this case, Justice Thurgood Marshall said that the “threat of dismissal is nonetheless a potent means of inhibiting speech.” Not only will North Carolina teachers have the threat of dismissal, they also would be subject to criminal proceedings.
The bill, at its core, seems designed to prevent public school teachers from advocating for public education itself.
And hearing from teachers about what makes the public school system work is extremely valuable information. “We, as a society, benefit when we hear from teachers,” McColl states.
We should be looking to our educators to inform us about the best practices in public education, to act as advocates for our students and districts, and to provide our children with the best way forward for their futures.
We should not be looking to lock them up because they dared to suggest that public education has value and deserves to be discussed, not silenced.
Melissa Geil is a freelance writer and English teacher. Although originally from New York, she moved to North Carolina the first time for college (go Tar Heels), and now she is back to stay. She enjoys reading, hiking, and gallivanting around the triangle with her family.