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Schools, employees posting views on national events; some not covered by 1st Amendment

Lisa Rantala, WSYX |

Amid the siege of the U.S. Capitol, Reynoldsburg City Schools Superintendent Dr. Melvin Brown tweeted, “If you have failed the understand the definition of privilege, it’s on display in D.C.”

The post was liked and retweeted hundreds of times. However, a parent contacted ABC 6 On Your Side to indicate they had filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Education as they felt the tweet violated the state’s Educator’s Code of Professional Conduct.

That code states, “Educator shall maintain appropriate boundaries with colleagues, students, and the school community when using technology and engaging in electronic communication.”

Superintendent Brown declined an interview with ABC 6 On Your Side. Capital University Law Professor Mark Brown said the superintendent could still be protected under the First Amendment of Freedom of Speech even if a Code of Conduct violation was found.

“It could be that it’s not considered government speech,” said Professor Brown. “If that’s the case, he retains his first amendment rights. Then the question is if it’s a matter of public concern and I think it clearly is.”

Professor Brown said administrative rules and regulations can be found unconstitutional themselves if they unfairly block someone’s right to free speech.

Need a 1st Amendment refresher? See Jarred Hill’s excellent explainer video below.

Jarred Hill, What’s the Deal: 1st Amendment

However, Professor Brown had a different take on a school marquee that posted the message “Bye Betsy” this weekend. 

A viewer sent ABC 6 On Your Side a photo of that marquee in front of Maize Elementary School which is a Columbus City School. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos resigned from her position after the siege last week. The viewer who emailed the photo asked, “When were public schools allowed to publicize their political views?”

Professor Brown answered, “Government has power and government can exercise its power to speak. The government can even take sides on a political debate.”

However, no government body is protected by the First Amendment. It would be up to the state to regulate or censure such a message of a public school district.

By Monday, the wording had been removed from the Maize Elementary School marquee.

The district told ABC 6 On Your Side, 

“The building principal was informed that the PTO had posted a message to the school marquee on Sunday and immediately removed it as it was not approved. The principal informed the PTO that all communication dealing with or on school property must first be approved by the building administrator and adhere to District guidelines.”

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