- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York’s top court on Tuesday upheld a Long Island school district’s sanctions against picketing teachers, concluding their parked cars created a potential risk to student safety that trumps their right to free speech.

The Court of Appeals case stemmed from 2007 union contract demonstrations at Woodland Middle School in 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. Their vehicles kept some students from getting dropped off at curbside and congested traffic.

The district filed disciplinary charges, alleging picketers 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.

A judge upheld the arbitrator, but a midlevel court reversed that decision, citing the teachers’ rights to free speech.

Now the Court of Appeals, divided 5-2, ruled that the school district, arbitrator and trial judge were right.

Acknowledging the teachers’ First Amendment rights, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote that “engaging in that constitutionally protected speech in a manner that interfered with the safety of students were outweighed by the district’s interests in maintaining an orderly, safe school.

“The district satisfied its burden … of proving that the discipline imposed here was justified,” she added.

In a separate opinion, Judge Robert Smith agreed with the ruling but disagreed that the teachers’ actions constituted free speech. “I am troubled by the implication that intentionally disruptive and dangerous conduct can, if it is designed for the purpose of calling attention to the actor’s message, qualify for First Amendment protection,” he wrote.

In her dissent, Judge Jenny Rivera wrote that the school district violated the teachers’ rights and the midlevel court issued a properly balanced decision weighing those rights against the actual facts. She noted that no students were hurt, the curb cuts remained open for pedestrian crossing and the district failed to prove the protest created a sufficiently substantial risk to disrupt the workings of the school.

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