It came to my attention last night by a very agitated teacher that Mississippi House Education Chairman, John L. Moore (R), had submitted a bill intended to silence educators across the state on education issues. The good thing is that the teacher expressed her shock and disbelief after school hours, and by doing so, she was not in violation of Mr. Moore’s proposed “Bill of Silence.” To be fair, some of Mr. Moore’s bill is common sense and justifiable. It should be a violation of state law for school employees to use school time, school property or school supplies for political reasons (i.e. a teacher should not be emailing his/her legislators at 11:30 a.m. when the school day is in session). However, if that is all HB (House Bill) 449 was about, I would not be writing, but unfortunately, he did not stop there.
As you read through the bill, it becomes very clear Moore is not only concerned with what school administrators and teachers do and say politically during the school day but after the school day as well. If his bill passes, superintendents and principals will no longer be able to even mention a legislative bill, action or issue in an administrative meeting or faculty meeting without fear of being charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $10,000. If you don’t believe me, look up the bill for yourself and read through it carefully, or you can simply keep reading as I look at each section of the bill and offer my response. Either way, all educators need to be familiar with House Bill 449.
John L. Moore – Republican — Representative — District 60
- HB 449, Section 2a, c, d, e – Section 2 deals with prohibiting political use of school time, political coercion of school personnel, and involvement in campaigning and lobbying. School district employees cannot use school district time (regularly scheduled hours of school operation), property, equipment, supplies or personnel to produce, distribute, disseminate, circulate or communicate any material or information in support or opposition of any political party, philosophy or issue in an election that could impact the outcome. Campaigning on behalf of a specific candidate or issue or lobbying the Legislature for policy change is not permitted. In addition, school district employees cannot attempt to coerce political support from school personnel or conduct fund raising for political purposes during regularly scheduled school hours.
RESPONSE: School time, school property, school equipment and supplies as well as the directed or solicited services of school personnel SHOULD NOT be used for political purposes. Political activities SHOULD BE conducted outside the school employment day on personal time – not school time. If a school administrator, board member, teacher or other paid school employee wishes to exercise their Constitutional right of involvement in political activities, they SHOULD perform those activities on their personal time, which may include the hours before and after their work duty assignments, weekends, holidays and approved personal leave. Nevertheless, there may be times when information of a political nature needs to be delivered to school employees during administrative meetings or faculty meetings. This is where a law such as the one proposed by Mr. Moore could be so literally interpreted that it imposes an unrealistic expectation that may lead to neglect of professional duties such as communication.
- HB 449, Section 2b – Section 2b deals with prohibiting school employees from using their school position to influence school personnel. School employees cannot use their official position in any way to influence or attempt to influence, district personnel to support or oppose any political party, philosophy or issue in an election that could impact the outcome. School employees cannot campaign on behalf of a specific candidate or issue or lobby the Legislature for policy change. Such prohibition shall include, but not be limited to, any form of advocacy or opposition in a classroom or school setting or other school related employment relationship.
RESPONSE: School officials should not be permitted to openly influence or coerce school district personnel during regularly scheduled school hours or even after hours, but delivering information that may be politically charged to inform employees as to potential impact on their jobs should be allowed. This would hold true when the information and accompanying views pertaining to that information are directly as well as indirectly connected to the job the employees are expected to perform. Also, who a school administrator, school board member, teacher or other school employee influences, supports, or opposes outside the school on his/her personal time is their business and Constitutional right. This may be a bit radical, but technically if HB 449 passes, all school administrators, school board members, teachers, and other school employees would be in violation of HB 449 by exercising their Constitutional right to VOTE since their vote has a direct influence on the outcome of elections.
- HB 449, Section 3 (1) – Part 1 of Section 3 clarifies many of the “can do’s” and “cannot do’s” discussed in Section 2; however, Section 3 (2) says that the school district superintendent and school board members must remain neutral by not engaging in political activities on school property and by not publicly supporting or opposing any political party, philosophy or issue in an election that could impact the outcome. Superintendents and school board members are forbidden to campaign on behalf of a specific candidate or issue, or lobbying the Legislature for policy change.
RESPONSE: Lobbying the Legislature for policy change is a major part of being a district superintendent or school board member! The position of the district superintendent is a POLITICAL POSITION, so to keep him/her from speaking out on political issues is ridiculous! This is a blatant attempt to hush voices of opposition since the district superintendents are the ones in the best position to get their voices heard! Mr. Moore understands fully that by removing the superintendents’ right to speak out on behalf of students and teachers, he is in effect putting a muzzle on state educators, which leaves the legislators free to run Mississippi public education as they please.
- HB 449, Section 4 (1) (2) – Section 4 of HB 449 sets the penalties for violation of this act. Anyone who violates the act will be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined up to $10,000 on the first offense. A second violation of the act will result in a misdemeanor and up to $10,000 fine as well as revocation of the individual’s professional license and certification by the State Board of Education.
RESPONSE: While I am pleased to see Mr. Moore was gracious enough to allow the State Board of Education some say in an educational issue even if only in a punitive sense, I am amazed that an educator exercising his/her Constitutional rights could be fined as much as $10,000 while a parent guilty of child neglect for excessive school absences can be fined no more than $1,000. Since when in Mississippi did speaking up for yourself and exercising your freedom of expression become a more contemptuous crime than child neglect?
As the teacher who brought this newest development to my attention and the attention of many others said, “You (teachers) should be ENRAGED!” She is absolutely right, but if HB 449 passes, it will not matter. The Bill of Silence will effectively hush all educator protests.
©Jack Linton, January 23, 2015