NC Bill Could Send Teachers to Jail For Wearing a Red Shirt

Teacher wearing red classroom

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.

The crime? Violation of a law, SB 480, currently under consideration by the North Carolina General Assembly. The teacher was wearing a red shirt in honor of “Wear Red 4 Ed.”

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.

MelissaMelissa 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.




There are 62 comments

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  1. Ann Petitjean

    NASCAR was adopted as the State Sport after a teacher encouraged her students to write to the legislature to lobby for this. We are charged with the responsibility of teaching the children to be good and productive citizens. This includes how the government works. Teachers value healthy debate and encourage exploration of all sides of an issue. If we are not allowed to foster this in our students, the citizens of NC will be little more than sheep. Perhaps this is the long term plan.

    • Kathy Carter

      Yes – in fact, the majority of the state symbols were adopted as a result of classroom projects n teaching children about the political process (I taught NC history at the university level, and we researched the concept of state symbols for NC….). Keeping political views controlled in the classroom in one sense is laudable – one would never want to penalize students for holding political views contrary to the teacher – but SB 480 goes at it in a way that seems unconstitutional to me. There is a right to free speech (which includes visual as well as verbal statements), and as far as the Constitution seems to state in the 1st amendment, classrooms are not exempt from this freedom. There is also a concept called “academic freedom,” which means that ideas should be open for discussion and debate in an educational setting. SB 480 seems to trample on that as well.

    • Joe Etheridge

      This headline is ridiculously misleading. Teachers cannot be arrested for wearing a red shirt unless it had some political statement like “Red 4 Ed” on it. I agree with the intent of the law–I don’t want teachers imposing their political views on my children either if they are different from what I’m trying to teach them.

    • Glenda Foster

      Andy Wells who ran against my sister-in-law who was an associate superintendent at the time. He thought he would run unopposed, but he was wrong! Although he won (a Republican in the 42nd district–big surprise!), my SIL gave him a run for his money (all $114,000 of it). Pat spent $14,000, all raised locally and none fr any outside interests. He was not a happy politician, so this bill is his response to being challenged by an educator.

  2. Karin Young

    It is getting to the point that our lawmakers act like communists. This is just another reason for teachers to go to Texas. They can’t teach the way they want to. All kids do not learn the same way. Now they get arrested for something they expose the students to. Like what’s going on in their communities. Go live in Russia if you want to be dictator.

  3. Diane Berkley

    I do believe that the United States Supreme Court has ruled several times that students do not lose their First Amendment right of Freedom of Speech when they enter school. According to the 14th Amendment, we are all guaranteed “Equal Protection under the Law”. This means the same Constitutional protections that students are granted must be given to their teachers.

  4. rufus

    I teach science. A lot of people in power consider science like evolution and global warming and the big bang theory to be more political than scientific. Regardless of your personal opinion on these things. They are studied with the scientific method and results are based on data. This law would give an avenue to fire me or scopes monkey trial me just for teaching my curriculum.

    • Dan Hodge

      I taught 7th and 8th grade science before I retired. I am a Christian minister, and I taught the theories of evolution, global warming, etc. As an honest teacher, I also had to teach the students the definition of theory: “a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.” I made sure they understood that theories are not facts, but can be deduced from facts. This law has noble intentions: keep educators focused on facts and thinking, not politics. The problem is that many of our younger students are not aware of the subtleties of politics, nor do they care. This is a noble idea supported by a bad law.

      • ash crist

        A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation…. A theory is an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events: an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true: the general principles or ideas that relate to a particular subject….it’s a good thing you retired. American public school kids are dumb enough, without shady cultists withholding information.

  5. Muriel Shaw

    As a North Carolina citizen, I feel it is embarrassing to the citizens of this beautiful state by dictating what people can or can’t wear. Teachers are NOT children, they already went through the years of someone telling them who, what, when, where. Treat Teachers with the same respect as you expect to be treated with. They go above and beyond their requirements for their jobs. Unlike the political group pushing this line of bull into law. I hope it is not made into law, I for one will NOT vote for any such garbage. There are many more important items that ought to be put into law. Example, no simple minded people running our government.

  6. Bonnie Cunard Margolin

    Thank you for your fair coverage of this issue. I am a Florida teacher and one of the two founders of Wear Red for Ed. We created the national group as a proactive way to show support for our public schools. We thank all who wear red, standing in support of our teachers! Keep public schools public!

  7. Candi

    Crap. In my 10th grade Civics and Economics class today, I taught the term “price ceiling” and used as an example the $50,000 limit a teacher can earn. Since I’m just one rung beneath that pay grade, I gave my opinion on the matter. Guess I would be looking for my local LEO to handcuff me under the proposed bill.

  8. Christopher Rumfelt

    I had shared this article on my Facebook page after I had saw it shared by some other friends of mine, who are also sympathetic to our state’s teachers and who are irate at the war the Legislature has declared upon public education. However, I went back and read the actual proposed bill, and it makes it a “firable” offense for a teacher to do as you illustrated in the article, but not a misdemeanor. The only section which creates a crime is when someone in a supervisory capacity attempts to prevent a subordinate employee from campaigning outside of the scheduled work day. §115C-335.15(b). This article is actually not factually correct, even if the sentiment that the Legislature is waging war against educators is true.

  9. Kevin Theel

    We elected some ass clown to purpose this legislation? Really, like there aren’t a thousand more pressing issues to try to fix, a bill banning wearing if red shirts! Wow, would red be banned at a school whose primary school color is red? Who would enforce such a law? Teachers can’t unionize, teachers get treated like peasants on the lords land in this state and now teachers can’t wear a specific color. Wow, did I move to the USSR and not know it?

  10. Crystal

    Michael, there were 4 sponsors of this bill. And it’s not such a suggestion. It already passed the NC Senate and is now being considered in the House. The authors were Andy Wells; Andrew C. Brock; Trudy Wade; (Primary) Dan Soucek;

    Crystal

  11. Peter Mac Manus

    What I want to know is…what happens to Republicans who we all know are interested in Education, show up at a Wake Co. School wearing a red tie. Will he or she be arrested or what?

  12. Rick Stephens

    Please take a moment to read the bill. What is considered a Class 1 misdemeanor is “No member of a local board of education or employee of the local board of education exercising supervisory authority shall make, issue, or enforce any rule or policy the effect of which is to interfere with the right of any employee of the local board of education as an individual to engage in political activity while not on duty or at times during which the employee is not performing services for which the employee receives compensation from the local board”. In other words, the bill’s language is actually protecting teacher’s rights to participate in political activities when not at work, and makes it illegal for school boards to punish teachers for their political beliefs. To say that teachers will be fired for wearing red shirts is incredibly misleading and inaccurate. As a fellow educator I fully support teachers; however, I also believe in accurately reporting information rather than spreading misinformation to create a buzz.

    • John S

      Really? I didnt know that the right of someone to participate in political activities outside of work needed protection!

  13. John Shaw

    Can anyone cite any section of the bill relating to wearing of red (or any color) shirts
    Can anyone cite any section of the bill that makes it a criminal offense to express support for education or for teachers?
    Please, read the bill.

    • Brad

      It’s section (e): “[A]n employee of a local board of education shall not use the authority of the employee’s position to secure support for or oppose any candidate, party, or issue in an election involving candidates for office or party nominations or to encourage student advocacy for or against issues of local, State, or federal policy.”

      If a teacher wears red in order to advocate for better funding for public schools or to show solidarity with NCAE, this section of the law could be used to claim that the teacher is “secure support for…[an] issue.”

    • Christopher Rumfelt

      I had shared this article on my Facebook page after I had saw it shared by some other friends of mine, who are also sympathetic to our state’s teachers and who are irate at the war the Legislature has declared upon public education. However, I went back and read the actual proposed bill, and it makes it a “firable” offense for a teacher to do as you illustrated in the article, but not a misdemeanor. The only section which creates a crime is when someone in a supervisory capacity attempts to prevent a subordinate employee from campaigning outside of the scheduled work day. §115C-335.15(b). This article is actually not factually correct, even if the sentiment that the Legislature is waging war against educators is true.

    • Scott Orr

      No, of course it doesn’t say that. What it does say is that teachers cannot engage in political activity during school hours. On the surface that is a reasonable request. However, wearing a red shirt (in support of teachers) could easily be construed as ‘political activity’ since it is designed to call attention to the problems in our schools. What it does is to create tension within the teaching community – that’s not conducive to a good learning environment.

    • TravelDoc59

      To answer both questions: NO.
      However, the “criminal offense charge” can be used IF a teacher wears red to support voting a certain way on election day.
      BUT that would be mighty hard to PROVE in a court of law. It would also be a great thing to discuss in an US Civics class!

    • Heather Smith

      I read it. This is what gives me, and everyone else, the willies.
      ” however, no employee of a local board of education shall do any of the following:
      Utilize public funds, supplies, equipment, or vehicles for partisan purposes, political purposes, or to engage in advocating for or against issues of local, State, or federal policy.

    • Jess

      I did read the bill. It is written vaguely enough that a prosecutor with an agenda could use the law to prosecute a teacher as discussed in the article. Would they win? Probably not, but they sure could make that teacher’s life miserable. And as noted in the article, when there is any doubt of legality, it could certainly have “chilling effect.”

  14. Ben Gordon

    yes, let’s train the kiddies to understand free speech is wrong and must be punished. get them while they’re young and impressionable.
    We don’t want them thinking their own thoughts and possibly trying to get the government to change for the better.

  15. Florence Carver

    It is time to pull out my “We ❤ Public Schools” Shirt! How dare they think they can control us like this!

  16. stephanie

    I wear red every Friday in support of the military so if I were a teacher supporting the troops at school is be thrown in jail? Yeah ok that makes sense and wearing red for ed is promoting EDUCATION how it why make that a crime???

  17. stephanie

    I wear red every Friday in support of the military so if I were a teacher supporting the troops at school I’d be thrown in jail? Yeah ok that makes sense and wearing red for ed is promoting EDUCATION how or why make that a crime???

  18. memory brogden

    As former middle school and
    high school teacher and community college instuctor in NC, I never encountered such problems with political correctness. Teachers need to have freedom to present provacative situations to students in order to stimulate students to evaluate and debate, but teachers should not be indoctrinating students to that teacher’s particular cause. Too bad your university youngsters are overwhelmingly indoctrinated by liberal professors
    who often will fail a student who disagrees

    ,

  19. robbie hernandez

    Then wear pink for Ed, and white for Ed, and wear green for Ed too. Wear blue for Ed too, and yellow, black also, grey and brown too. Oh, don’t forget Orange and violet too. Don’t leave out teal and aqua, or purple or lime. Just wear all colors for Ed!*

  20. AP Dillon

    The example of being arrested for wearing a red shirt is pure fiction and rather appalling fear mongering.

    Ed officials and teachers are state employees. Engaging in political activity on state property or time can get a state employee fired.
    Do education officials and teachers think the law shouldn’t apply to them?

  21. Leigh Zeitz

    What ignorance this law demonstrates.
    Teachers should be encouraged to actively stimulate their students with local, state and national issues. They should encourage their students to take a stand and support it to prepare them for future, intelligent discussions rather than following the dogmatic assumptions of others.
    Z

  22. Jo Ann Ragazzo

    I’ve read the bill, and the broad definition of “political activity” means that teachers would be subjected to criminal sanctions and dismissal for encouraging students to participate in DARE, Habitat for Humanity, local food banks, MADD, and any other “issues of local, state, or federal policy.” All this bill would do is generate income for constitutional rights lawyers and more legal fees to be paid by NC taxpayers.

  23. Walt Smith

    I have worn a red shirt EVERY SINGLE FRIDAY since May, 2003 as a symbol of my support for brothers and sisters in the armed forces of the United States. My high school students understood the significance of my red shirt. Many of them ended up in the military.

  24. Paul Batchelor

    I see the concern. Too many teachers are using their influence and position to promote their political parties agenda. It is the teachers responsibility to present objective information on each party and let the student decide for themselves which they prefer.

  25. Jolene Johnson Gallardo

    What has happened to my home state? Why is there someone from Ohio elected as governor, who has damaged our public education system? Vote him out! Protect our teachers and pay them for obtaining advanced degrees.

  26. S Harper

    We should likewise make it a class 1 misdemeanor for our legislators to propose bills that place political intent over the good of our population.

  27. alison202

    A. unconstitutional
    B. This bill is a total waste of NC taxpayer dollars!
    C. What are they afraid of anyway?

  28. Christopher Rumfelt

    Even with the disclaimer this article is still completely factually false. Being a recent law school graduate holding a J.D. degree I am confident when I say there was no version of this proposed bill which EVER attempted to criminalize the activities which are described in this article. The only criminal offenses EVER written into any of the proposals were related to those in supervisory positions from retaliating against, or attempting to prevent, a subordinate employee from engaging in political activities outside of normally scheduled work hours. The disclaimer only further erodes ANY credibility of the author. I, along with many others, shared this article only to discover through a reading of the language of the proposed bill that it is false. This in turn gives ammunition to those who support the GOP legislature since they can link to this article as an example of total falsehoods being published in an attempt to illegitimately discredit the work of the legislature. Instead of helping the case, you have damaged it. The author or the publisher should completely retract this article and write another focusing upon the fact that teachers could be FIRED, but NOT ARRESTED for engaging in any activity which could be construed as political activity. The way this proposed bill reads, that could potentially include displaying a campaign sticker on a vehicle driven onto school property. Furthermore, it is obvious the intent of the legislature is to: 1. prevent teachers, which the majority of don’t support GOP policies, from attempting to influence students’ political beliefs, and 2. offer protection to the minority teachers who do support GOP policies from feeling they will be retaliated against if they campaign for GOP candidates and causes. This bill was not to protect the teachers engaged in issues supported by the NCAE, but those who oppose it. That is the real story. Not a complete fabrication about potential arrests. I have linked articles from this site in the past. As long as this one remains here, I will not link any further, and now I must go back and reread others I have linked and double check for accuracy. I, along with many others, have been betrayed and had our trust in this site severely damaged. There is no need to give the GOP actual proof of false stories, which this story does, when that is one of their tactics to disprove every article and story which is not favorable to them.

  29. Michael Waters

    I remember when a middle school science teacher in Haywood County, NC had her students research the pollutants flowing into the Pigeon River from the Champion Paper Mill in Canton, NC ( the county’s largest employer).
    The superintendent of schools personally removed the student’s work from the walls and threw the posters in the trash. He suspended the teacher and tried to fire her. Thank goodness the North Carolina Association of Educators was able to argue her rights in court and save her job. Teachers deserve the right of due process, and the freedom to speak truth to power.

  30. Barbara Walter

    I have never before been embarrassed by my beautiful state. Now I am almost ashamed to say that I live in NC. I am a retired teacher who taught 38 years and is still substituting and volunteering in our public schools. God Bless our teachers who teach under the stress of low salaries and disrespectful treatment from state government. I know first hand what it is like to love teaching but be unable to make ends meet on low pay. My daughter is our 4th generation teacher in our family. I am so heartbroken by this bill. Teachers are close to being treated like criminals on probation!

  31. Carol G

    My concern is this: the way the language of the law is written, as a NC teacher, if I endorse a person publically and state that I am a teacher, it appears to me that I am using the fact that I am an educator to endorse him or her and I would therefore be in violation of the law. Also NCAE, our teacher association, is usually promoted to teachers during school hours. Under this law, it appears that it would be banned from happening in the school building altogether. We already don’t have a union, we barely have any political influence, and what little we do have is getting ready to be taken away.

  32. Becky Secrest

    I am not surprised that Andy Wells is involved with this legislation. He apparently is an idiot. I am so happy to be retired and not have to put up with this crap any more. But I do wish our legislators would work as hard for the people of North Carolina as I did when I was a teacher. I used to be proud to live in NC.


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