Seven months after teachers at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, went public with their concerns about an administrator’s advice to balance books on the Holocaust with titles that show “opposing” perspectives, district employees this week discovered that a new clause had been added to their annual employment contracts, listed under the heading: “Non-Disparagement.”
“You agree to not disparage, criticize, or defame the District, and its employees or officials, to the media,” it read.
Four Carroll teachers, speaking on the condition that they not be named because they feared retaliation, said they were disturbed by the new contract language.
“Only a district that is knowingly doing something wrong would choose to silence its entire staff,” one of them wrote in a text message to a reporter on Thursday.
“I hadn’t yet decided if I was going to leave, but it seems the district decided for me!” another wrote.
Officials for both the National Education Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, unions that represent teachers nationally and across Texas, condemned the contract language as an attempt to silence teachers.
“This is the first time we have heard of a school district putting that language into a teacher contract,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “It is a rejection of a teacher’s fundamental First Amendment rights. A teacher also is a taxpayer, who is entitled to criticize a public school district.”
Michael Leroy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that prohibiting public school employees from criticizing their district “is absolutely indefensible under the Constitution,” adding that the new clause in Carroll’s teacher contracts is “clearly unconstitutional. I mean, that’s not even a close call.”
Nondisparagement clauses are more common in the employment contracts of private companies, which are not subject to the First Amendment, Leroy said.
Leroy, the University of Illinois law professor, said the nondisparagement clause appears to violate a half-century-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent that established the right of government employees to speak on matters of public importance, even if it means criticizing their employer.
In that 1968 case, Pickering v. Board of Education, the court found that a school district in Illinois violated a teacher’s First Amendment rights when it fired him for writing a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the school board for prioritizing funding for athletics over teacher salaries.
“If a teacher, and for that matter if a public employee, is speaking on a matter of public concern, it is protected speech,” Leroy said, noting that the only time he’s seen government employees asked to sign a nondisparagement clause has been in settlement agreements after public employees have been fired, not as a condition of their employment.
Two other labor law experts agreed that a blanket ban on teachers criticizing a public school district is probably unconstitutional.
A Carroll teacher, texting a reporter from her lunch break, summarized her reaction to the new contract language this way: “It seems like if we say anything to anyone then we’re screwed. What happened to freedom of speech?”
See here for the previous example. Maybe they need Elon Musk to buy Carroll ISD, if he has any cash left over after Twitter.