New York’s top court on Tuesday upheld a Long Island school district’s sanctions against picketing teachers, concluding their parked cars created a potential risk to student safety that trumps their right to free speech.
The Court of Appeals case stemmed from 2007 union contract demonstrations at Woodland Middle School. On a rainy day, several teachers parked near the school, displaying picket signs in windows. Their vehicles kept some students from being dropped off at curbside and backed up traffic.
The district filed disciplinary charges, alleging picketers intentionally created a safety risk. Two teachers, who were fined $500 and $1,000, respectively, by an arbitrator, went to court, arguing they had a constitutional right to picket peacefully in a public area before school.
A judge upheld the arbitrator, but a midlevel court reversed that decision, citing the teachers’ rights to free speech.
Now the Court of Appeals, divided 5-2, ruled that the school district, arbitrator and trial judge were right.
Acknowledging the teachers’ First Amendment rights, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote that “engaging in that constitutionally protected speech in a manner that interfered with the safety of students were outweighed by the district’s interests in maintaining an orderly, safe school.
“The district satisfied its burden … of proving that the discipline imposed here was justified,” she added.