New York's top court grilled lawyers for a Long Island school district and picketing teachers Wednesday about whether the teachers' parked cars put students at risk and whether that trumps their right to free speech.
The Court of Appeals case stems from March 2007 union demonstrations at Woodland Middle School of the East Meadow Union Free School District. On a rainy day, several teachers parked legally on a street by the school, displaying picket signs in windows, the vehicles keeping some students from getting dropped off at curbside.
The district filed disciplinary charges against six teachers, alleging they intentionally created a safety risk. Two teachers, who were fined $500 and $1,000, respectively, by an arbitrator, went to court, arguing they had a constitutional right to picket peacefully in a public area before school where they parked legally.
A judge upheld the arbitrator, but a midlevel court reversed that decision, citing the teachers' First Amendment rights. The school district appealed.
"Why was the risk here so great to justify discipline when the casualty is really free speech?" Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked as soon as the school district's attorney introduced himself at arguments Wednesday. "That's got to be a pretty serious harm."
George Pauta replied that the picketing teachers caused two disruptions. They congested traffic, which "caused children to be dropped off in the middle of the street," and which also caused many teachers to sign in late, leaving students in homeroom classes unsupervised, he said. "The safety of students is paramount in a district's operations," he said.
The teachers had been picketing twice a week for almost three years, Pauta said. The intent that day was not just to communicate about contract bargaining, but there was evidence union members decided to park their cars close together on both sides of the street, "and create a blocking of the students," he said.
"You don't think the disruption itself was designed to communicate the message?" Judge Robert Smith asked.
Pauta said he believes the teachers created the disruption, in terms of their collective bargaining, so parents of students would pay attention.
Attorney Sherry Bokser, representing the teachers, said there was "no significant safety issue" that day and that the teachers had been without a new contract for years. "It was a nasty labor dispute," she said.
Smith and Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. questioned the point of the teachers parking their cars close to each other on both sides of the street.
"Is there a free speech right to block traffic?" Smith said. "Can you essentially park up a street as a way of communicating your message?"
Bokser said: "Absolutely. If you're parked on your own time."
Smith asked her to cite case law for that. She cited a 1963 Teamsters case decided in a federal appeals court.
"I have no doubt that the placards are protected speech," he said.
The court's ruling is expected next month.