New York Teachers Sue Over Ban on Campaign Buttons

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The Associated Press

New York Teachers Sue Over Ban on Campaign Buttons

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A supporter wears a pin of US Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) and his vice presidential running mate Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) at a campaign rally at the Ross County Courthouse in Chillicothe, Ohio, October 10, 2008. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

NEW YORK (AP) -- The teachers' union for the
nation's largest public school system accused the city on Friday of
banning political campaign buttons and sued to reverse the policy,
declaring that free speech rights were violated.

United
Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten announced at a news
conference that a lawsuit had been filed in U.S. District Court in
Manhattan to challenge the enforcement of the policy.

"We
couldn't believe it," said Weingarten, who wore a Barack Obama lapel
button. The American Federation of Teachers, including its UFT
delegates, voted over the summer to endorse Obama's presidential
candidacy.

Weingarten said schools Chancellor
Joel Klein urged principals more than two weeks ago to enforce a
Department of Education policy requiring complete political neutrality.

City lawyer Paul Marks said officials were still evaluating the lawsuit.

"However,
we're confident that when the court has had the opportunity to fully
consider this matter, the city's position will be upheld," he said.

Last
week, some University of Illinois faculty and students held an Obama
rally on campus, claiming their right to support political candidates
was under assault. Before the rally, the school released a statement
saying state workers were prohibited by law from participating in
political activities on university property. The school later said it
never intended to enforce the law.

The
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently sent a letter of
protest after the University of Oklahoma instructed students and
faculty and staff members not to use university e-mail to endorse or
oppose a candidate. The group said it also had received complaints
about bans on campaign activities at Iowa Western Community College and
Fresno Pacific University in California.

In
New York, the UFT's lawsuit included a copy of a letter it received
from the schools. It urged enforcement of a regulation restricting
political activity in school buildings, saying it was necessary "in
light of the upcoming presidential election."

The letter said failure to comply with the regulation could result in disciplinary action.

Norman
Siegel, a lawyer for the union, said no student, teacher or parent had
ever complained about buttons worn during political campaigns. He said
the city would have to prove the buttons were disruptive.

The
city also said teachers should not distribute political materials in
employee mailboxes or hang posters and other materials on bulletin
boards, according to the UFT.

Weingarten said
teachers should have a right to express their political views, just
like anyone else. Suppressing political expression sends the wrong
educational message, she argued.

"Students
can only benefit from being exposed to and engaged in a dialogue about
current events, civic responsibilities and the political process,"
Weingarten said.

The UFT lists a membership
of about 200,000, including 74,000 teachers. The city's public schools
have about 1.1 million students.

 

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