Southlake, Texas teachers urged to sign ‘non-disparagement’ agreements

Seven months after teachers at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, went public with concerns about a trustee’s advice to balance Holocaust books with titles that show “opposing” perspectives, District employees discovered this week that a new clause had been added to their annual employment contracts, listed under the heading: “Non-disparagement.”

“You agree not to disparage, criticize, or defame the District, its employees, or its officials to the media,” it read.

Four Carroll teachers, speaking on condition they not be named because they feared reprisals, said they were troubled by the new contract language.

“Only a district that knowingly does something wrong would choose to silence all of its staff,” one wrote in a text message to a reporter on Thursday.

“I hadn’t decided if I was going to leave yet, but it seems the district has decided for me!” another wrote.

Officials from the National Education Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, unions that represent teachers nationally and across Texas, condemned the contract language as an attempt to silence teachers.

“This is the first time we’ve heard of a school district putting this language in a teacher’s contract,” said Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association. “This is a denial of a teacher’s basic First Amendment rights. A teacher is also a taxpayer, who has the right to criticize a public school district.

Michael Leroy, an employment law expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said barring public school employees from criticizing their district “is absolutely indefensible under the Constitution,” adding that the new clause of Carroll’s teacher contracts is “clearly unconstitutional”. I mean, it’s not even a close call.

Non-disparagement clauses are more common in employment contracts of private companies, which are not subject to the First Amendment, Leroy said.

A spokeswoman for the Carroll School System, about 30 miles northwest of Dallas, did not immediately comment on the new contract clause.

Southlake Schools have been the subject of national media coverage in recent years, particularly the district’s handing over of allegations of student discrimination and bullying. This has placed the city at the center of a growing political battle over school curricula, books, and curricula on race, gender, and sexuality that some conservatives have labeled critical race theory.

In 2018, Carroll school system leaders promised and ultimately failed to make sweeping changes to address racism in the district following the release of a video of white high school students chanting the N-word. After the video went viral, dozens of parents, students and recent graduates shared stories of racist and anti-LGBTQ harassment in Carroll, a predominantly white neighborhood that has become more diverse in recent years.

Since then, conservative candidates backed by Southlake Families PAC, a group formed to defeat the diversity plan, have taken majority control of the Carroll school board and voted to kill the plan.

Carroll was back in the national spotlight in October, after a district administrator was secretly recorded advising teachers that if they had a Holocaust book in the classroom, they should also offer students access to a book from an “opposite” point of view. The instruction was intended, in part, to help teachers comply with a new Texas law that requires educators to present multiple perspectives when discussing “widely debated and currently controversial” issues.

News of the comment sparked international outrage, including from Holocaust survivors, and the district later apologized and reneged on those instructions.

This story came to light after more than half a dozen Carroll teachers spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity. In the months that followed, some Southlake parents tried to uncover the identities of the teachers who spoke to the media and called on district leaders to fire them, according to social media posts and emails reviewed by NBC News. .

A month later, in November, the Carroll School Board voted to change district policy to prohibit employees from secretly recording school district activities. There was no school board vote to add the new non-disparagement clause to teacher contracts.

Robison, the teachers’ union spokesperson, said the clause “appears designed to protect districts from embarrassment over misjudgments and discourage teachers from speaking out about poor educational decisions.”

Alice O’Brien, general counsel at the National Education Association, linked the clause to the national effort to limit how teachers talk about racism and sexuality in the classroom, writing in a statement: “Instead of censoring the truth, let’s focus on tackling the real issues facing Texas students, starting with paying educators more and making sure students have the resources they need to succeed.

Leroy, a law professor at the University of Illinois, said the non-disparagement clause appears to violate a half-century-old US Supreme Court precedent that established the right of employees of the government to speak out on matters of public importance, even if it means criticizing their employer.

In this 1968 case, Pickering v. Board of Education, the court found that an Illinois school district violated a teacher’s First Amendment rights when it fired him for writing a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the school board for having prioritized the funding of athletics over the teacher. wages.

“If a teacher, and for that matter if a public sector employee, speaks out on a matter of public interest, that is protected speech,” Leroy said, noting that the only time he has seen government employees being asked to sign a non-disparagement clause, this was in settlement agreements after the firing of public employees, not as a condition of their employment.

Two other labor law experts agreed that a blanket ban on teachers criticizing a public school district is likely unconstitutional.

A Carroll teacher, texting a reporter during her lunch break, summed up her reaction to the new contract language as follows: “It seems like if we say anything to somebody, we’re screwed. What happened to freedom of expression?

CORRECTION (April 28, 2022, 7:21 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the Texas State Teachers Association spokesperson. He’s Clay Robison, not Clay Robinson.

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