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Freedom of Expression Allows Teachers to Display Political Campaign Materials in Schools

August 1, 2013 | Selina Pellerin

In May 2013, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia held that the freedom of expression protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows teachers to display political campaign materials in schools.

Background

In October 2008, the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) started a political campaign critiquing government educational policies. Campaign materials, including posters and buttons, were circulated by the BCTF to teachers.

In April, 2009, the school board sent an email to all principals advising that political posters or information should not be displayed in schools except on assigned bulletin boards in staff rooms. Subsequently, two teachers who had posted campaign materials in the hall outside their classrooms were instructed to remove the posters. Another teacher wearing a campaign button was asked to remove the button.

In May, 2009, the Teachers Federation advised the school board that it disagreed with the directions emailed to principals in April and asked that they be rescinded. Management instead reaffirmed its position. Consequently, the BCTF filed a grievance alleging that the directives infringed the teachers’ freedom of expression protected by the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Issue

To what extent may teachers express their political views on education issues in public schools?

Award History

At arbitration, the grievance was denied. The arbitrator focused the justification of limiting a Charter right and found that management’s directives responded to the objective of insulating students from political discourse in the classroom. He concluded that the measures taken by management were proportional: the means chosen were rationally connected to the objective, they impaired the freedom as little as possible, and their effects were proportional to the objective.

On appeal, the decision was overturned. Levine J. did not find that the objective of insulating students from political messages was a sufficiently important goal to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected freedom and noted that the arbitrator did not consider whether there were other, less restrictive, means to achieve the stated goal. The Court of Appeal also noted that there no evidence of harm to students that could result from seeing the material.

Hinkson J. added that while he agreed that the teachers’ freedom of expression should prevail in the present case, he expressed concern about the extent to which schoolchildren should be exposed to merely one side of any public debate. He stated that where teachers choose to exercise their freedom of speech by relating a political message, that freedom must be balanced against the rights of their students to a neutral and unbiased education. Therefore, while school boards may not prevent teachers from expressing their political views, the boards may require that the teachers provide opportunities for other viewpoints to be expressed.

British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association, 2013 BCCA 241.