ALBANY -- You can't falsely shout "fire" in a crowded theater, the legal maxim goes. And picketing teachers can't imperil school safety by blocking a school entrance to exercise their free speech rights, New York's top court ruled Tuesday.
In a 5-2 decision, the Court of Appeals said student safety trumped the First Amendment, upholding the East Meadow Union Free School District's sanctions against two teachers for parking their cars near the entrance of Woodland Middle School during a protest over protracted contract negotiations in March 2007.
On a rainy day, some teachers parked on a street by the school and displayed picket signs in their cars, rather than picketing outside. Their vehicles kept students from being dropped off curbside, according to court documents.
The district took disciplinary action against teachers Richard Santer and Barbara Lucia, claiming they created a safety hazard. The teachers contended they had a constitutional right to picket peacefully in a public area before the beginning of the school day. An arbitrator sided with the school.
Though the fines were small -- $1,000 for Lucia, $500 for Santer -- the stakes were high.
Writing for the majority, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam said the teachers' free speech rights "were outweighed by the district's interests in maintaining an orderly, safe school." She noted that the case record showed the teachers purposefully "blocked a familiar student drop-off point."
Abdus-Salaam wrote, "We are mindful that teachers do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door. The evidence here, however, does not indicate that the district's disciplinary actions were motivated by the content of petitioners' speech . . . And although petitioners suggest that the district's actions were intended to silence their constitutionally protected speech, that assertion is not supported by the record, which indicates that, as the district contends, petitioners were disciplined because the parking demonstration was disruptive and created potentially unsafe conditions for students."
A spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the union that represented Santer and Lucia, called the court ruling "very disappointing."
NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said, "while we take some solace in the fact that a clear majority found teachers retain First Amendment rights, we believe the court misapplied the law. The record showed there was no risk to students. There was no harm to students."
In Schenk v. U.S. in 1919, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."
George Pauta, attorney for the school district, said Tuesday he referred to that principal in making his case before New York's top court. "You can't engage in activity with the purpose of being disruptive or creating a safety hazard," Pauta said.
He said the legal principle of the lawsuit was more important than the fines.
"When we approached the union, we wanted a representation that this type of action wouldn't happen again. That was rejected," Pauta said. "So the school district had no choice. The potential of hazard, i.e., the safety of the students, and the potential disruption was something the school district couldn't let stand."