The B.C. Court of Appeal has held that certain school board directives to teachers limiting their criticism of the provincial government in the workplace violated teachers’ freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The dispute arose after the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, in response to a decision by the provincial government in 2002 to legislate a collective agreement, decided to distribute information criticizing the legislation, including its provisions concerning class sizes. BCTF members posted flyers critical of the government’s actions on teacher bulletin boards in schools. The bulletin boards were in areas visible to students and parents. Some teachers also discussed class size issues during parent-teacher interviews and gave BCTF materials to parents.
Administrators in some districts removed the flyers from the bulletin boards and directed teachers not to discuss class size issues in parent-teacher interviews or to give BCTF materials to parents. In response, the BCTF filed a general grievance.
The arbitrator allowed the grievance, finding that the school boards’ directions infringed teachers’ freedom of expression, and the infringement was not justified under section 1 of the Charter as a reasonable limit on that freedom.
On appeal, the majority of the Court agreed with the arbitrator. The majority held that the school boards’ directives were not a reasonable limit on teachers’ freedom of expression.
The Court recognized the importance of the school boards’ objectives in issuing the directives, i.e. to maintain public confidence in the school system, to ensure parent-teacher interviews met their purpose and to ensure that public schools were seen as places open and receptive to different views.
However, the majority held that in attempting to achieve these objectives, the school boards’ actions did not, as required by the Charter, “minimally impair” teachers’ freedom of expression. In the majority’s view, rather than issue the directives, the school boards could have issued a reminder to teachers regarding the purposes and goals of parent-teacher interviews, and could have relied upon professional disciplinary proceedings in the event of teacher abuse of those purposes.
In a strong dissent, Justice Lowry held that the prohibitions against posting materials on the bulletin boards and distributing the information in the parent-teacher interviews were reasonable limits on teachers’ freedom of expression. Justice Lowry held that allowing teachers to play the role of advocates for a political agenda would compromise their position as neutral facilitators and would be inconsistent with the maintenance of an open and supportive education environment.