The Boston Teachers Union Tuesday accused the School Department of intimidating teachers who speak with the news media and of trying to infringe upon their First Amendment rights.
The teachers union, which has been locked in protracted contract talks with the school system, raised the concerns after its says an eighth-grade civics teacher at the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester was called into a supervisor’s office after being interviewed by the Bay State Banner for a recent story on budget cuts.
The teacher was “told that she was not to speak with the media because, ‘contractually, all media contacts are supposed to be cleared by BPS communications,’ ” according to the union.
In the story, the teacher described how a proposed $1 million cut to the McCormack’s budget could jeopardize a full-time nurse, library services, and extracurricular activities.
“On our time, we can do what we please,” Richard Stutman, the union’s president, wrote in his weekly news bulletin. “That includes speaking to the media.”
The School Department has long had a policy that instructs employees to refer all media inquiries to the communications office, which facilitates the flow of information but does not always grant requested interviews.
The policy has prompted many teachers, when criticizing the School Department, to be quoted anonymously for fear supervisors will retaliate.
The School Department defended its policy, saying it “does not prohibit teachers from speaking to the media.”
“BPS strongly believes in freedom of speech and elevating First Amendment rights for all students and staff,” Daniel O’Brien, a School Department spokesman, said in a statement. “The intent of the BPS Media Relations Policy is to provide support and guidance for staff members when contacted by media who seek to visit schools or gather information about the district or a school.”
But the School Department’s policy indicates that employees need approval from the communications office before speaking with journalists, saying “all press inquiries about the Boston Public Schools or any individual school, student, staff member, program or initiative are to be directed first to the Communications Office.”
In an interview, Stutman said he knew of at least three members who criticized the School Department in newspaper articles and were later reprimanded by a supervisor, who reiterated the policy and cautioned against speaking to the media again.
“If you try to intimidate people who talk to the press, then you have lots to hide,” Stutman said.
Under Superintendent Tommy Chang, the communications office has increased oversight of media coverage, routinely accompanying reporters on school visits and taking part in telephone interviews with employees — moves that can prevent employees from talking off the record with a reporter about concerns.
Previously, the communications office rarely participated in school visits and telephone interviews unless it involved the superintendent or a high-ranking official.
The US Supreme Court has affirmed the rights of public employees to speak out. In 1968, the court ordered the reinstatement of an Illinois teacher who was fired after writing a letter to the editor critical of a budget increase, saying it was critical for public employees with informed opinions to weigh in on matters of public interest.
Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Massachusetts, said it seems the Boston School Department needs a lesson on First Amendment rights.
“It’s outrageous,” she said that the McCormack administration would discourage the teacher from talking to the press. “It was clear she was not speaking for anyone but herself.”