Q: Our high school government teacher wore a “Vote Beto” button to school on Monday. She says it is to encourage her students over the age of 18 to vote. Is this permissible?
A: Likely no. The Texas Ethics Commission has determined that campaign buttons are political advertising for purposes of the Election Code. As such, a teacher wearing a candidate-specific button while in the course and scope of her duties represents an expenditure of public funds “advocating the election of a candidate,” which is prohibited by statute.
Texas Election Code section 255.003 is the governing statute, which prohibits direct or indirect expenditure of public funds for purposes of political advertising. Examples of indirect expenditures include use of personnel, equipment, email and facilities. While the teacher may argue she is providing civil instruction or that she has a right to free speech under the First Amendment, the State of Texas’ interest in maintaining a politically neutral educational environment outweighs a district employee’s interest in expressing his or her political views to students while the employee performs her job duties. As such, The Texas Ethics Commission, which is the state agency that oversees violations of the Texas Election Code, interprets the prohibition against political advertising broadly. According to the Commission, even conducting a meeting on public property involves an indirect use of public funds. In general, school districts should not allow employees to wear any item that advocates the approval or election of any candidate or measure, nor should a school district host political events or political speeches. In addition, any “rental” of district property should be in compliance with the district’s facility use policy, GKD (Local). Finally, note that noncompliance with the prohibition against political advertising is a Class A Misdemeanor.