In today’s increasingly polarized society, opinions are strong and conversations can easily become fragmented, with both sides leaving a conversation feeling that their legitimate opinions have gone unheard. In such times, board members often resort to Facebook or other social media to voice their concerns. Board members who feel such a need should exercise restraint in their social media postings, lest they run afoul of the School Ethics Act.
In Complaint C25-11, brought to the School Ethics Commission, a board member was sanctioned for posting controversial comments about the superintendent. In the decision, the responding board member admitted to comparing the superintendent to a terrorist in a Facebook posting that was publicly accessible. The School Ethics Commission, while recognizing a board member’s right to express a difference of opinion with both the board and administration, nevertheless found that comparing the superintendent to a terrorist, on a social media outlet which allowed for access by many people, was an intentionally confrontational act and that members of the community often assume that board members have insight that others do not have.
According to the commission, such a statement is likely to be credited far more than a statement offered by an ordinary citizen. The commission therefore concluded that such a statement may reasonably be considered as undermining, opposing, compromising or harming the superintendent in the proper performance of her duties, and recommended the sanction of censure for the board member.
While the School Ethics Commission, commissioner of education, and state courts have protected the First Amendment rights of board members, those rights must be carefully balanced against the board member’s duty to support employees in the proper performance of their duties.
School board members are encouraged to review the Code of Ethics for School Board Members for guidance on this increasingly evolving area of the law.
Asked & Answered is prepared by the staff of NJSBA’s Legal and Labor Relations Services Department. It reflects information, data and guidance available to NJSBA members through this important Association unit.