Judge: Jackson schools infringed on educators’ free speech

Published 7:30 am Thursday, May 12, 2022

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JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi’s second-largest school district had “vague, overbroad and unconstitutional” restrictions on educators’ freedom of speech, a judge ruled.

Circuit Judge Jess Dickinson on Tuesday ordered Jackson Public Schools to permanently stop enforcing policies that banned staff from contacting parents, the public, the media, law enforcement or anyone else about issues in the schools, the Clarion Ledger reported.

“By silencing its teachers, staff, employees and their organizational advocate, JPS deprives its students, their parents and other interested parties such as legislators and taxpayers, of important information necessary to fully understand and take part in their public education system, and meaningfully call for its improvement where and when needed,” Dickinson wrote.

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Jackson Federation of Teachers, a union representing teachers, paraprofessionals and other school staff, filed a complaint against the district last year. Policies mentioned in the court filing were about confidential information, staff ethics and use of social media.

WAPT-TV reported that the school district had said employees, faculty and staff could be disciplined or even fired if the superintendent determined they used social media to post “data, documents, photos or inappropriate information … that might result in a disruption of classroom activity.”

The district’s policies blocked free speech and adversely affected the union’s ability to attract potential members, wrote Dickinson, a retired Mississippi Supreme Court justice who was appointed in 2020 to help with a backlog of Hinds County court cases.

The JPS board revised the district’s policies in early April, after hearings in Hinds County Circuit Court, according to court documents. The revision made the court case irrelevant, said officials of the district that has about 19,350 students.

Dickinson wrote the court still had concerns JPS might reinstate the challenged policies and continue to tell employees they can’t speak out in certain ways or divulge information that is “not in the best interest of the district.”