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Political Activity at School Events

Kacie Kefgen

By Kacie Kefgen, MASB Assistant Director of Labor Relations and Legal Services

DashBoard, Sept. 6, 2017

If you have been to a Secretary of State office, farmer’s market or sporting event recently, you likely have been approached by someone asking for your signature for a petition. From the perspective of signature gatherers, school events could be a great opportunity to gather support for their initiative. How should school districts respond if someone would like to gather signatures on school property?

#1 – Have an effective, districtwide policy ahead of time.

#2 – Apply the policy every time.

Why is a policy important?

A person speaking with others and asking for their signature for a ballot initiative is most likely exercising their First Amendment free speech rights. School districts, as government entities, must be thoughtful whenever they restrict those free speech rights.

Having an effective policy in place ahead of time helps to ensure that administrators make good decisions when faced with a possibly contentious situation. It also helps shield the school district from significant legal liability and a potentially serious public relations problem.

Must a district allow community members to collect signatures at school events, like football games?

It depends. Yes, I know, that’s that frustrating lawyer nonanswer again.

The answer to the question depends on what kind of forum for speech the district has created at such a school event, based on policy or practice. Just because an event is on school property, which is public property, does not mean that someone has the type of expansive free speech rights there that they would, say, on a sidewalk in front of city hall.

Generally, a school district has the authority to maintain a nonpublic forum on its property and at its events, meaning that it could restrict the public from handing out leaflets or collecting petition signatures. However, if a district, either by policy or practice, opens a forum up for expression, it must take care to apply that policy or practice in a way that is not unlawful, such as only stopping expression when its administrators disagree with the particular leaflets or petition.

Bottom Line:

There is too much complicated case law for a district to make a decision on the fly about who should be allowed to distribute political materials or collect petition signatures and who should not. Districts should work with their policy providers and/or legal counsel to have effective policy set ahead of time, and then administrators should be prepared to follow that policy consistently.

If you have questions about this, please contact your district’s legal counsel or the MASB Legal Team at 517.327.5900.

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