Appeals court hears East Meadow teacher picketing case

An exterior image of Woodland Middle School, taken An exterior image of Woodland Middle School, taken by Google Street View in 2014. Photo Credit: Google

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Two East Meadow schoolteachers, disciplined by the district in 2007 for union activities that officials said created "a health and safety risk" for students, will have their case heard Wednesday by the state's highest court.

The issue now before the New York State Court of Appeals in Albany stems from Woodland Middle School teacher demonstrations about lengthy contract negotiations in 2007. At the time, some teachers who were picketing outside the school escaped the rain by parking their cars -- with their signs in the windows -- along both sides of a street by the school.

That street was used by parents to drop off students. But with the teachers parked on both sides, some students got out of cars in travel lanes instead of at the curb, according to case files.

"No school official asked teachers to move their cars," according to court files, but the district "filed disciplinary charges against six teachers," including Richard Santer and Barbara Lucia.

Santer and Lucia argued they had a right to picket peacefully in a public area before the beginning of the school day, but were fined $500 and $1,000, respectively, by an arbitrator.

Actions against the other four teachers, who are not named in the Santer and Lucia court documents, could not be determined.

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Santer and Lucia appealed, but the Nassau State Supreme Court upheld the fine. The Appellate Division, however, reversed the decision, citing freedom of speech rights and ruling that "the record establishes that the danger presented by the legally parking teachers could not have been substantial." The discipline imposed "would likely have the effect of chilling speech on an important matter of public concern," the appellate court said.

East Meadow appealed and the case is to be argued Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the school district said Superintendent Louis DeAngelo declined to comment on the case.

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George Pauta, the Manhattan-based attorney arguing the case for the district, could not be reached. But the district has previously argued that the teachers' "parking activity" did not qualify "as a form of speech under the First Amendment." Even if it did, it was not a protected right given that their "actual intent was to create a health and safety risk," the district claimed in court documents.

Santer and Lucia could not be reached for comment. Sherry Bosker, the New York State United Teacher lawyer representing the two teachers, said the district's claim that the teacher picketing created a hazard was "baseless."

"The cases are about protecting traditional free speech rights," she said.

Arguments are scheduled to begin about 2:25 p.m. and can be followed online by going to nycourts.gov/ctapps/ and clicking "webcast."

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