West York school board members question if policy revisions limit free speech

West York Area school board on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. Top row, left to right: Douglas Hoover, Donald Carl, Todd Gettys, Lynn Kohler. Bottom row, left to right: Courtney Dennis, Jeanne Herman, Suzanne Smith, Brandy Shope.

Several West York Area board members last week raised concerns about freedom of speech while debating a proposed policy many districts have had in place for years.

The policy, "Freedom of Speech in Non-school Settings," would limit administrators, professional staff and support staff on what they can say even when off the clock.

If opinions or concerns expressed conflict with district interests, individuals would be in violation of the policy — an update all other districts in the county have adopted, years earlier in some cases.

Some, such as that of Southern York County, were adopted as early as 1992.

Others have versions with additions that note administrator speech is generally assumed to be representative of the district, so they must take special care to make it known their views are personal. Red Lion Area notes this for all employees.

Some include consequences for violating the policy up to and including termination, such as Spring Grove Area — while also noting the policy is not all-inclusive and other forms of expression may conflict with district interests on a case-by-case basis.

West York's proposed update does not include any specific consequences.

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The district's version of the policy for professional employees — which stands to be eliminated — is the only one in the county that simply acknowledges the rights of employees to speak out on issues of concern, with no further guidance.

The proposed addition states: “When those issues are related to the school district and its programs, however, the employee's freedom of expression must be balanced against the interests of this district.”

Examples noted in the policy include comments that could interfere with district maintenance of student discipline, public statements known to be false or spoken with a disregard for the truth and threats to other employees.

But several West York school board members said the policy could effectively suppress criticism.

“We don’t want people slandering or libeling the district,” said board Vice President Jeanne Herman. “However, what we don’t want to squelch is people who have opinions that sometimes might be counter in a respectful way.”

For the past two years the district has been reviewing its policies, with new language coming from Pennsylvania School Boards Association “boilerplate” text that can be adopted as is or revised, Superintendent Todd Davies said.

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PSBA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

West York human resources director Beth Thieret said in speaking to district solicitor Jeffrey Litts earlier that day, he called the original language “toothless,” meaning not much in terms of discipline.

But board members Donald Carl, Brandy Shope,  Herman and Suzanne Smith concluded the added language could be construed as limiting employee speech.

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Prior to the board meeting, Smith put together her own revisions that removed the case of interfering with maintenance of student discipline and clarified that employees would have to knowingly make untrue statements, but Carl said that wasn’t enough.

Simply requiring the speech to be balanced with district interests could infringe on rights, he said, and Shope agreed.

Davies was unable to get Litts connected properly on the May 12 Zoom call, and given the questions, the district postponed final review and passage of the policy to June.

"I don’t want any teachers or administration or staff members to feel like they can’t share their opinion or share their feelings to us," Shope said. "I’m afraid that the language as is, without revisions, won’t allow that to happen."