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August 3, 2017

The New York Civil Liberties Union today urged the New York City Department of Education in a letter to end its investigation into the free speech activities of the Park Slope Collegiate principal Jill Bloomberg. An anonymous complaint wrongly alleged she recruited students to participate in political activities.

Department of Education regulations prohibit school personnel from engaging in campaign speech and from opposing or supporting candidates while in a school. Though Bloomberg has been outspoken about racial and social injustice, there is no indication she used her position to support or oppose candidates for office, or that her social justice advocacy disrupted the educational mission of the school.

“Principals and teachers do not lose their right to free speech just because they work at a school,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. "This misguided investigation has all the earmarks of a witch hunt. It is out of control and must end immediately.”

The NYCLU letter asserts that the regulation prohibiting campaign speech in schools does not authorize the Office of Special Investigation to broaden its inquiry to include issue-oriented speech unrelated to any election. That would prevent students and teachers from discussing LGBT rights, school segregation, climate change, immigration reform and many other topics that are an important part of learning and public education. 

The investigation has caused needless disruption, the NYCLU letter argues. Investigators have pulled students out of class to interrogate them without informing parents. In at least one case, investigators questioned a student after a parent specifically objected. Students were asked whether their teachers were communists and were questioned about whether they or their parents had gone to political rallies or meetings.

“Investigating students’ and teachers’ political beliefs is offensive and unconstitutional, regardless of what those beliefs are,” said Elizabeth S. Saylor, a partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP. Saylor co-signed the NYCLU letter and is representing the parents of a middle school student interrogated without parental consent. “This kind of knock-off McCarthyism is entirely inappropriate. The out-of-control investigation has made students afraid to speak out against segregation and inequality in their schools. This unconstitutional investigation must stop now.”

“The DOE could have appropriately addressed this issue at a meeting beteween Ms. Bloomberg and her supervisor,” said NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg. “It should have been obvious from the very beginning that a more adversarial investigation would intrude upon important free speech values. The DOE must ensure that no further damage is done to the school’s mission and that any issues raised by the anonymous complaint are dealt with without the continued disruption from this pointless and unjustified investigation.”

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