The first school board elections in Harford County have prompted Harford County Public Schools to issue new guidelines restricting political campaigning on school property and at school-sponsored events. HCPS is not the only school system to regulate campaign activity, but can such limits on political expression be enforced?
The HCPS guidelines were issued to school administrators on July 20, 2010, identifying three categories of campaigners, each with a different set of limitations.
Students have the least restrictions. They’re able to wear campaign buttons and clothing; hand out flyers; and communicate generally with other students on behalf of a candidate, as long as they don’t disrupt school operations or functions.
Employees are more restricted. No campaign buttons or clothing; no distribution of materials; and no attempts at general communication with students or other employees on behalf of a candidate (private conversations are okay). Teachers can use campaign materials as part of an approved, content-neutral lesson plan. All employees are exempted from these limitations at pre-approved, non-school events held at school facilities (the recent PTA candidates’ forums are a likely example).
“External persons” – candidates or others acting in support of a candidate – may wear campaign buttons or clothing, and can engage in private conversations in support of a candidate. But external persons cannot engage in general communication in support of a candidate, and are otherwise prohibited from campaigning on school grounds or at school- sponsored events such as football games, dances or field trips. Exceptions are made for pre-approved, non-school events held at school facilities.
In response to an inquiry from The Dagger as to the legal basis for the new guidelines, Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for HCPS explained:
“In speaking with [General Counsel] Patrick Spicer, the “law” is not a single law or statute but rather for the most part the memo is based on various cases decided over years by the courts that have formulated the rights of outside persons, (e.g. candidates),employees and students with respect to political campaigning. Constitutional rights to free speech and whether the school has opened a limited open forum for speech are implicated in these decisions. Also under Maryland statute, school systems have the right to regulate what occurs on school premises. Therefore, the memo is essentially a summary of the parameters established by these decisions as well as the statute which gives the school system the right to control the school grounds.”
Kranefeld also said that there was concern that candidates would use schools and school activities as a platform for their campaigns, and anyone found violating the rules would be asked to “cease and desist”.
HCPS will get no pushback from Bob Frisch, a school board candidate in District A who has been at Edgewood schools, displaying signs and waiving at passing cars. The guidelines were e-mailed to school board candidates on August 13, and Frisch told The Dagger that he intends to comply with the new rules.
But Harford County Election Director Jim Massey sees the potential for legal challenges on several grounds. Massey, who is careful to point out that he is not a lawyer, had this to say after a review of the HCPS guidelines:
“The basis of these guidelines seems to be stating what political activities on school property are permitted and not permitted by external persons (candidates), students, and employees. I believe that someone could challenge them on the first amendment right for political expression.
There has been a trend in the courts to allow political expression in areas that were previously restricted. Baltimore County’s restriction on the time limit that political signs could be displayed was challenged by the ACLU. The courts said that you could not limit the residents’ political expression.
Recently, the courts agreed that the right of someone to display a sign on private property could not be restricted when the property is within 100 foot of the polling place on Election Day.
This could be a very interesting test case if the school system was challenged. Maryland Election Law does not address any restrictions of political campaign activities. Most public institutions, county, library, college; have policies about prohibiting campaigning on their premises. The school’s policy does permit their students to distribute campaign materials. The courts might also look at why the students are permitted, but not external persons. That could be a question as well.”
The full text of the HCPS memorandum is below: