Becker teachers union sues district over policy it calls a 'gag order'

High school students participate in walkout
Students at Becker High School take part in a walkout in April 2021 to protest racial and social injustice.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2021

Updated: Aug. 22, 10:51 a.m. | Posted: Aug. 19, 10:09 a.m.

The union representing teachers in Becker, Minn., has filed a lawsuit against the Becker school district over a policy it says violates free speech rights. Teachers and union officials have labeled the policy a “gag order.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Sherburne County District Court, focuses on a communications plan approved by the Becker school board in May. The Becker Education Association says the plan violates the free speech provision of the state constitution. The complaint claims the policy is “antithetical to the values of public education, which encourages personal growth and debate.”

In a statement responding to inquiries from MPR News about the lawsuit, Becker superintendent Jeremy Schmidt said the district disagreed with the “claims and assertions” being made in the filing. It believes “the lawsuit misconstrues the purpose and effect of language in the School District’s plan.” The district plans to respond through legal proceedings in court.

A draft of the Becker school district's communications plan prohibits district employees from making statements to “media, individuals or entities outside the district relating to student or personnel matters.”

Ben Pany, a teacher in the district, spoke about the policy during a board meeting on Aug. 1.

“The recently passed communications plan violates teachers’ freedom of speech by prohibiting them from making public statements,” Pany said. “For the select few allowed to speak, the plan only permits communication that praises Becker schools. This gag order infringes on the public’s freedom to hear full accounts of what is happening in their schools.”

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Pany said the policy would bar coaches and advisers from speaking to the local newspaper.

“This means coaches and advisers cannot speak to the local newspaper. Do we really want to limit the sharing of our students’ successes on the field and on the stage? Or will this plan only be enforced to limit the speech of only certain people and groups? If so, you are proving that this is a plan put in to harass only certain people,” he said at the board meeting.

The union also suggested the policy could bar educators from fulfilling obligations as mandatory reporters, in cases of suspected child abuse or maltreatment.

Education Minnesota, the state teachers' union, has gotten involved in the dispute.

“This gag order, and policies like it, are unacceptable. Our union will resist them everywhere,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht.

The union has also threatened to take legal action against the Becker school district over another policy under consideration.

Policy 471, currently under legal review by Becker district counsel, aims to bar “political indoctrination” and “the teaching of inherently divisive concepts,” which, according to the draft policy, includes concepts in which “an individual’s moral character is inherently determined by his or her race, sex or faith” or “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, sex, or faith.”

Becker’s superintendent has recommended the policy not be approved. The American Civil Liberties Union and a lawyer from Education Minnesota have both written letters to the Becker district warning the policy could violate First Amendment rights and undermine equity efforts.

Meg Luger-Nikolai, an attorney with Education Minnesota, said the union would explore “all legal options” if Policy 471 was not revised to bring it “in line with the most straightforward precepts of state and federal law.”