Fall 2015 Issue
October 05, 2015

NYSUT's challenge to 'gag order' moves forward

Author: By Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United

A federal judge has ruled that NYSUT's challenge of the state's "gag order" prohibiting teachers from speaking out about concerns surrounding questions on standardized tests can proceed.

U.S. District Court Judge Gary Sharpe, in a Sept. 15 ruling rejecting the state's motion to dismiss the union's challenge, determined the five teachers represented by NYSUT sufficiently proved that the confidentiality agreements chilled their free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

NYSUT President Karen E. Magee immediately hailed Sharpe's decision, calling it "welcome news not only for our members, but also for parents and students who rely on teachers to speak truth to power.

"The 'gags' on teachers must be untied," Magee said. "Teachers have the right and responsibility to speak out on issues of public concern, especially when they are protecting children from a broken testing system that has been criticized by parents and teachers alike. Educators at all grade levels should be able to freely discuss testing and other issues affecting our students without fear of retaliation."

NYSUT is challenging the state's so-called confidentiality agreements that prohibit teachers from speaking out about state tests as an unconstitutional violation of teachers' free speech rights. Teachers who speak out in the face of the state's gag orders could face disciplinary charges, lose their teaching licenses or face criminal prosecution.

NYSUT is suing on behalf of four teachers from Spencerport in Monroe County — Robert Allen, Carol Lennon, Claudia Montecalvo and Emilija Thevanesan — and Matthew Fuller, a teacher in Taconic Hills.

Pension plan ruling

Meanwhile in Chicago — in a case that carried possible ramifications here in New York — a Cook County Circuit Court judge has ruled as unconstitutional the city's plan to reduce the pension of its employees.

The pension changes voided by the court included the reduction of cost-of-living increases received annually by retirees, and the increase of workers' mandatory pension fund contributions.

The Chicago case was being eyed closely in the Empire State, since the constitutional provision protecting pensions in Illinois is based on the one in New York.

Because Chicago officials relied — inaccurately so — on cases in New York they claimed allowed unions to bargain away vested pension rights, NYSUT was called upon to assist in the defense against the city's efforts. As such, NYSUT's Legal Department provided written research and analysis on the New York cases.

The city is now appealing the ruling.