Q: Our school district has board elections in May, and the high school principal has a bumper sticker supporting a trustee candidate on his car. He parks in a parking spot visible to both students and parents in front of the high school that has a sign designating the spot “Principal Parking.” Is this permissible?
A: Likely no. The Texas Ethics Commission has determined that election bumper stickers are political advertising for purposes of the election code. In this instance, because the principal’s car with the bumper sticker is visible to students during the school day, and the car is clearly marked as belonging to the principal, the designated benefit can be construed as an indirect expenditure of public funds for purposes of political advertising.
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 principal may argue he has a right to free speech under the First Amendment, the State of Texas’ interest in providing a politically neutral educational environment outweighs a district employee’s interest in expressing their political views to students while the district employees perform their 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 host political events or political speech, and any use 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.