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Becker teachers union files lawsuit against school district over 'gag order'

Members argue the new policy violates teachers’ first amendment rights and prevents them from telling parents and community what's really going on in their schools.

BECKER, Minn. — The teachers’ union in Becker has filed a lawsuit against Becker Public Schools.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Sherburne County Court by the Becker Education Association.

Members say the lawsuit was filed in response to a “gag order,” a new policy at Becker Public Schools that teachers argue tells them what they can and can’t say in public.

"We believe it violates free speech and educators’ ability to do their job,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht says.

Members argue the new policy violates teachers’ first amendment rights and prevents them from telling parents and the community what's really going on in their schools.

The policy is part of a new “communications plan” that was created at Becker Public Schools.

The nine-page document includes details such as the district’s overall mission, its goals, and even a guide that explains the right colors and images staff members should use when it comes to the school district’s logo.

Most of the communication plan is pretty straight forward, except for one line on page two has drawn criticism from the teachers’ union.

That line states “employees may not make statements to the media, individuals, or entities outside the district relating to student or personnel matters.”

Specht says the words in that sentence are so vague that it could be interpreted as saying teachers can't say anything about the school district to anyone who doesn't work in the school district.

"We believe that parents and community deserve to know what's going on in their schools,” Specht says.

“It also prevents them from following a lot of state statutes and policies. Educators are mandatory reporters, so if they see or have concerns about child abuse or maltreatment, this gag order is so broad it would prevent educators from making any of those reports."

Specht says teachers are worried that violating this communications policy could get them in trouble, or fired.

Leaders who represent the teachers’ union in Becker declined our request for an interview, because they're worried about getting in trouble for speaking out against a policy that they argue states teachers can’t speak out.

"They feel like anything they say about this is going to be used against them,” Specht says.

That's one reason why Education Minnesota helped the teachers association write up this lawsuit.

The suit argues that this new policy is connected to a school board meeting in March that ignited a debate over LGBT students and their rights, which included a protest with more than a hundred people.

"It feels definitely that there is a tie to that event,” Specht says.

"I think it is not ironic. I think this is meant to control, and to make sure the only narrative the community hears is the narrative from the board and superintendent."

Becker Public School Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt sent this statement to KARE-11 in response to the lawsuit:

“We have been made aware of recent court filings in connection with a legal action challenging certain aspects of the School District’s new communication plan. We disagree with the claims and assertions being made in those filings, and believe the lawsuit misconstrues the purpose and effect of language in the School District’s plan. Because the judicial system is the more appropriate forum in which to address these issues, the School District will respond through the legal proceedings before the Court.”

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