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ST. PAUL, Minnesota. Aug. 18, 2022 – A sweeping policy of prior-restraint against the speech of its staff has prompted a lawsuit against the Becker Public School District by the union representing its teachers.
The Becker Education Association, a local affiliate of Education Minnesota, the statewide union of educators, filed the lawsuit in Sherburne County District Court on Thursday.
The lawsuit claims a communications plan approved by the Becker school board May 2 violates the free speech provision of the state constitution and several state laws. The lawsuit asks the court to prevent the district from enforcing the policy against its staff.
“Defendant district has adopted a policy that is antithetical to the values of public education, which encourage personal growth and debate,” the lawsuit said. “However, it is most relevant to the work of this Court that the policies are antithetical to the Minnesota Constitution and a range of Minnesota statutes.”
The policy approved by the school board bars educators, as a condition of employment, from offering anything other than “positive” communications to people who are not employed by the district. The lawsuit claims the prior restraint about discussion of student matters is so broad that it would bar staff members from complying with Minnesota’s Maltreatment of Minors statute.
“Because the District’s Communications Plan bans maltreatment reports, it subjects students to the possibility of uninterrupted child abuse and requires staff to choose between their employment and their statutory obligation as mandated reporters,” the complaint said.
The lawsuit claims the policy was so broad that it would even prohibit educators from commenting about personnel issues at school board meetings, if anyone not employed by the district is present.
“For example,” the lawsuit said, “any employee who offered comment on the effects of staff cuts on student outcomes in the District would be insubordinate and subject to discipline if a member of the press or public was present at the time.”
Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said restrictions on free speech like those imposed by the Becker school board were unacceptable.
“Educators should be able to speak the truth about what’s happening in their schools to parents and the rest of their communities,” Specht said. “This gag order, and policies like it, are unacceptable. Our union will resist them everywhere.”
The co-presidents of the Becker Education Association, Jason Baune and Ben Pany, had no additional comment about the lawsuit because any such comment to the news media might reflect negatively on the district. Such a comment to the news media is currently prohibited and could expose the staff members to disciplinary action.
About Education Minnesota
Education Minnesota is the voice for professional educators and students. Education Minnesota’s members include teachers and education support professionals in Minnesota’s public school districts, faculty members at Minnesota’s community and technical colleges and University of Minnesota campuses in Duluth and Crookston, retired educators and student teachers. Education Minnesota is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and AFL-CIO.