During election years, districts see an increase in requests to gather signatures in support of ballot propositions on or near school campuses. While signature gathering involves First Amendment rights, districts have the authority to limit signature-gathering activities on district property; some activities may even be prohibited by law if they involve the use of district resources for campaign activity. In many cases, it may be advisable for a district to exercise this authority and prohibit such activities from occurring on school grounds, especially during school hours.
A district should consider several factors in determining if signature gathering can or should be allowed:
1. Will the activity take place on school property or off school grounds (e.g., the sidewalk in front of the school)?
Districts may restrict political activities occurring on school property, but may not be able to do so if the activity occurs on the sidewalk in front of a school unless there is a legitimate safety concern (e.g., ingress and egress of cars or the presence of students during pick up and drop off). If the request seeks to gather signatures in an area of the campus that the district has not intentionally opened for the purpose of public discourse (a “public forum”), the district may impose reasonable and viewpoint-neutral restrictions on the activity, including prohibiting all signature gathering.
2. Do employees intend to participate in the activity during their working/instructional hours?
District resources, including employee time, may not be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure. As a general rule, districts may restrict the political activities of employees during their working/instructional hours. For these reasons, and subject to district policy, district employees should not participate in signature gathering during working hours unless the activity takes place during work breaks and does not involve students.
3. What kinds of restrictions do current school district board policies and administrative regulations impose?
Most districts have policies that address political activity. As election season approaches, now is a good time to review those policies. If they set forth requirements/limitations around petition gathering, the policies should be followed consistently and viewpoint neutrally.
4. Has the district approved similar requests in the past, especially from other groups or groups on the opposite side of the same issue?
Districts retain the authority to refuse to sponsor speech that might reasonably be perceived to associate them with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy. Thus, districts should consider the potential for allegations of discrimination by permitting a signature-gathering activity in support of a political issue while denying a similar request on the other side of the same issue or on another matter.
Based on these factors, a district can determine if signature gathering may be or should be allowed on district grounds. In many cases, it may be advisable to limit or prohibit signature gathering on district grounds to avoid the use of district resources to advocate for a ballot measure and to maintain a focus on the educational mission of the district. This is especially true during school hours when courts have said districts have more authority to limit political activity on campus and there is a greater potential for the use of district resources (including staff time) to support or oppose a ballot measure.
For more information about the “do’s and don’ts” for candidate and ballot measure campaigns, please see DWK’s bulletin on “Avoiding Pitfalls During Election Season.” If you have any specific questions regarding a signature gathering request, please do not hesitate to contact us.