Districts Can Limit the Wearing of Union Buttons

November 2001

A Public Employment Relations Board Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision upholding a school district’s right to restrict the ability of employees to wear union buttons during instructional time.

In Turlock Teachers Association v. Turlock Joint Elementary School District (2001) PERB Docket No. SA-CE-2004-E, members of the teachers’ union wore badges conveying a message that the district no longer paid top salaries. The school district instructed the teachers’ union that employees must not wear political buttons, including buttons relating to union political activities, during instructional times or settings. The union filed an unfair practice charge on the grounds that the district’s actions interfered with employee rights guaranteed under the Educational Employment Relations Act (specifically, Government Code section 3543.5).

The ALJ dismissed the charge. Citing Education Code section 7055-6, as well as court and PERB decisions upholding restrictions on political speech in the instructional setting, the ALJ concluded that the term “political” extended to the message conveyed on the union buttons. (California Teachers Association v. San Diego Unified School District (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th1383; Wilmar Union Elementary School District (2000) PERB Decision No. 1371.) The ALJ stressed that students are a captive, impressionable audience which looks to teachers as role models and are susceptible to peer pressure. School districts must have the authority to prohibit teachers acting with the imprimatur of the school district from engaging in political advocacy during instructional activities.

In a related development, the California Attorney General in a July 2001 opinion has indicated that a school district may not prohibit teachers from wearing political buttons while attending Back-to-School Night to meet with parents to discuss curriculum and related matters on the theory that this is an assembly of adults in a non-instructional setting. (Opinion No. 01-307.)

Districts should review their board policies and consult legal counsel as necessary prior to taking action against employees engaging in prohibited political conduct on school grounds.