An Administrative Law Judge of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board concluded that District administration committed an unfair labor practice by including negative comments in a teacher’s evaluation based on comments the teacher made during the public comment period of a Board of Education Meeting. The decision serves as a warning to administrators and a reminder that the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act may give protection to employees who lack “professionalism” when engaging in protected activity.
In the case, District administrators asked that a union president apologize and retract statements he made during a Board meeting that were critical of administration after his statements were proven to be inaccurate. The union president never did so, and his next evaluation reflected negative comments regarding his professionalism. Even though the negative comments did not alter an otherwise overall proficient rating, an Administrative Law Judge concluded that the comments in the evaluation as well as the District’s reaction to the teacher’s comments at the Board meeting constituted a violation of the IELRA. Because the union president’s comments demonstrated the existence of a labor dispute between the employer and employees and because the evidence at the hearing did not establish that his comments were “deliberately or maliciously false,” the comments were protected under the IELRA.
This decision exemplifies the careful balancing that must be done when determining how to address speech by employees that is or that appears inappropriate. Before determining the appropriate response, carefully weigh the situation, including the employee’s First Amendment rights and rights under the IELRA to engage in union activity.
Contact Jeff Goelitz or Tony Loizzi for your employee-speech questions.