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N.Y. High Court Upholds Discipline of Teachers Over Picketing

New York state's highest court has upheld the discipline of teachers whose picketing demonstration during collective bargaining created what administrators viewed as a hazardous situation for students arriving at school.

The case involved a 2007 demonstration by teachers at Woodland Middle School in the East Meadow Union School District on Long Island. The teachers' union contract had expired in 2004, and to protest a lack of progress in negotiations, teachers had protested on weekly basis, usually by walking with picket signs on mornings before the start of school.

On the morning of March 2, 2007, however, the teachers parked their cars on a street outside the school and placed their picket signs in the car windows so parents would see them. The street was one where parents usually dropped off their children for school. The teachers' cars, though legally parked, disrupted the usual routine and required parents to drop off children in the middle of the street.

That created a dangerous situation, two administrators at the school determined. The demonstration also caused a traffic backup that led to 16 teachers arriving late to work at the school. No children were hurt, though, and the police arrived after the demonstration had ended.

Teachers who participated in the demonstration were charged with misconduct and were fined. The two teachers whose proceedings were subject of legal proceedings, Richard Santer and Barbara Lucia, were fined $500 and $1,000, respectively.

Those teachers sued, arguing that they were being punished for speech protected by the First Amendment. Arbitrators and trial courts ruled against them, while a midlevel appeals court held that the demonstration was speech on a matter of public concern and that it did not so threaten the school's effective operation as to justify the imposition of discipline. For example, the administrators did not see the situation as so dangerous as to order the teachers to move their cars or to go to the street themselves to make sure students were moving past the parked cars safely. 

In its May 6 decision in Santer v. Board of Education of East Meadow Union School District, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, applied the balancing test from a key U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on public-employee speech rights.

In that 1968 decision, Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205, the court created a test requiring a balancing between the rights of a public employee to speak on matters of public concern with the interests of the public agency in promoting an efficient workplace.

The New York high court ruled 5-2 for the school district. Writing for four members of the court, Judge Sheila Abdul-Salaam said the teachers' use of their parked cars to display picket signs was clearly speech on a matter of public concern—the district's collective-bargaining process.

But as to the second part of the Pickering test, the court sided with the district.

"We conclude that the district met its burden of proving that [the teachers'] speech was disruptive enough to justify the imposition of discipline," the court said. "Thankfully, no student was injured on account of the parking demonstration, but the district nonetheless established that [the teachers'] actions created a potential yet substantial risk to student safety."

In dissent joined by one other member of the court, Judge Jenny Rivera said the lower appellate court had properly considered the balance of factors, including the "lack of urgent response" by administrators to the purported safety threat, in concluding that "the danger created by the petitioners' parked cars was not substantial."

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