Q: I was just copied on an email from one of our board members sent to the local Chamber of Commerce listserv from the board member’s school email account advocating support for our upcoming bond election. Is use of the school’s email permitted for this purpose?
A: No. A school district employee or official may not use his or her school email account, nor any other public resource, to advocate, to any degree, for or against a particular political candidate or position.
Texas law prohibits school employees and officials from using public resources to distribute messages advocating support for or against a particular candidate, party, or ballot measure. Although not defined in any statute or judicial order, the Texas Ethics Commission has issued opinions rebuking government officials for the use of email to conduct political advertising and/or electioneering. The Texas Legislature has defined political advertising as any published communication supporting or opposing a political position. Similarly, electioneering means to work for the election of a candidate or party or distribute political literature designed to influence voters.
The Commission has held that when a school district employee or official distributes a message via his or her school email account, the act of clicking “send” is considered the equivalent of using school-funded postage stamps and envelopes to distribute physical letters via U.S. mail. If the content of these letters (or email) contains a message that constitutes political advertising or electioneering, then a knowing violator could be charged criminally with a Class A misdemeanor. The same would apply to a post made on a school social media account or a presentation given in one’s official capacity.
School district employees and officials are also prohibited from using school equipment to advocate for or against a specific political position. For example, a district employee is prohibited from using a school-issued laptop to create and send political fliers promoting a particular political candidate or position, regardless of whether the individual is creating and sending the fliers on his own time and at his own house. The inverse is true as well; that is, a school district employee may not use a private device or email account to send messages promoting a political position during that individual’s working hours. This ensures that public resources intended for education are not diverted to promoting political agendas.
As the line between permitted advocacy and prohibited electioneering and/or advertising can be murky, particularly for superintendents in school districts with bond elections pending, we recommend consultation with counsel and careful review of Texas Ethics Commission guidance.