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Teachers union sues Woodland Park School District over ‘gag order’ policy

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Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) A Colorado teachers union filed a federal lawsuit against the Woodland Park School District and its board of education over a policy that they allege prevents teachers from publicly speaking about school concerns.

The Woodland Park Education Association and its president, Nate Owen, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver last week. The school board and district in Woodland Park, outside Colorado Springs in Teller County, has become increasingly conservative, including adopting American Birthright standards earlier this year.

The lawsuit alleges that a district policy, known as KDDA, is an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech that goes against the First Amendment.

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That policy, revised twice this year, states that the superintendent is the official spokesperson for the district and handles all press releases, employees cannot talk to the media without district approval, and employees cannot post on social media about district decisions without approval. Violation of the policy is considered insubordination.

“Prior restraints on speech are the most serious and least tolerable infringement of an individual’s First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court has routinely held that prior restraints on protected speech are presumed to be constitutionally invalid,” the lawsuit reads.

There are examples of courts striking down policies that prevent public employees, like teachers, from speaking to the media without prior approval.

“It is my understanding that policies like this have previously been challenged in other school districts and have been found by courts to be unconstitutional restrictions on free speech rights of school employees,” said attorney Steve Zansberg, who works on cases pertaining to media and the First Amendment. (Zansberg has represented Colorado Newsline.)

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Because of Owen’s standing as the WPEA president, he often makes public comments to the school board about working conditions and matters of public concern, as well as comments to the media. The district’s policy, however, puts his job in jeopardy if he speaks out.

“Woodland Park educators work hard every day to ensure that their schools are welcoming places where their students can learn and thrive. And for their efforts they’ve been rewarded by their school district and board with a gag order, with removal of critical services for their students, and with constant disrespect for their professional expertise,” Amie Baca-Oehlert, high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association, said in a statement. CEA, which is not a plaintiff in the case, is the states’s largest teachers union.

The lawsuit also alleges that the way the policy was revised in February and March violates Colorado’s Open Meetings Law. There are no posted minutes or agendas that show the school board publicly discussing the issue.

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Additionally, the lawsuit alleges that the district unconstitutionally compels employees to join the Professional Association of Colorado Educators for professional liability insurance. The lawsuit contends that PACE, a proponent of school vouchers and school choice, is an anti-union organization.

“Plaintiffs’ members do not want to be forced to join PACE because they do not agree with PACE as an organization, its goals, its political beliefs, its messaging, or its purpose nor do they want to receive its propaganda,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit estimates that the district will spend about $40,000 for employee membership this upcoming school year.

Woodland Park School District Superintendent Ken Witt called the lawsuit a “coordinated political attack” by groups seeking to intimidate the district because of its recent “pivot to parent and student friendly policies and practices.”

“I believe the employees who may have been concerned about the KDDA policy are those who have been historically conditioned to feel free to take private HR and student matters into the public using social media. Whatever the court may decide in this case, the striking lack of professionalism and ethics on the part of those who are feigning to be offended is heartbreaking,” Witt wrote in an email.

Newsline left a phone message seeking comment with school board President David Rusterholtz but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.