Toledo Public Schools recently settled a lawsuit with the Toledo Federation of Teachers. The settlement requires the district to change its policy regarding staff members interacting with the media. Allegations in the lawsuit stated that the current media policy violated the First Amendment rights of union members.
The trouble began when Bowsher High School athletic director Terrance Reeves granted an interview to a local weekly publication. A reporter asked questions about an injury Reeves received while breaking up a fight between spectators at a basketball game. Reeves had given interviews before in his role as athletic director. The focus of this interview was more personal, and Reeves didn’t have any qualms about answering the questions.
After the story appeared, Toledo Public Schools requested a meeting with Reeves. It seems he was in violation of the district’s policy that prohibits staff communication with the media without concurrently working with the district. The TPS policy says that staff members “contacted directly by a member of the media must refer the reporter to the communications office, who will work with staff and the media outlet to respond appropriately … .”
Although this policy had been in place for years it had never been enforced. Reeves had communicated with the media frequently without receiving any kind of reprimand, but the district’s reaction to this story was different. Reeves and the teachers union sued the district after he was given a “green sheet,” essentially a written warning. The lawsuit attacked the policy as being overly broad and vague.
The parties reached a settlement in which the district agreed to change its policy regarding staff members and media communication. Included in the new policy is an acknowledgement of the right of staff members to express themselves as part of participation in a free society. However, the policy also requires that media communications related to the district should be mindful of the district’s interests.
Having organization policies reviewed by an attorney is an excellent way to avoid similar situations. With the assistance of a lawyer it’s possible to balance the rights of employees with the interests of the employer.