Expressing Political Viewpoints in the Classroom


A few faculty have expressed a concern or raised a question as to whether or not it is allowable to discuss political topics, such as the Millionaires’ Tax ballot initiative, in the classroom.

The question of what faculty should or should not use class time for, lies at the very heart of academic freedom, a freedom which the United States Supreme Court has time and again found is constitutional in nature in public colleges and universities. In other words, it is up to the faculty’s sound judgment to decide what to use class time for.
In Sweezy v. New Hampshire, Justice Frankfurter wrote, in concurrence, that governmental interference with the content of a scholar’s lectures at a state university “unquestionably was an invasion of [his] liberties in the areas of academic freedom and political expression – areas in which the government should be extremely reticent to tread.” (354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957)). And the Court has repeatedly, and recently, reaffirmed this principle set forth by Justice Frankfurter. (See, e.g., Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of State of New York, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967) (“Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more important than in the community of American schools.”) (emphasis supplied); Gruter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 329 (2003) (“We have long recognized that, given the important purpose of public education and the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition.”)).

Closer to home, the Ninth Circuit has also specifically held that community college faculty have First Amendment rights regarding their classroom speech, (Cohen v. San Bernardino Valley College, 92 F.3d 968, 972 (9th Cir. 1996)), and made clear more recently its “doubt that a college professor’s expression on a matter of public concern, directed to the college community, could ever … justify … judicial intervention” because “the right to provoke, offend and shock lies at the core of the First Amendment[,] … particularly so on college campuses.” (Rodriguez v . Maricopa County Community College District, 605 F.3d 703, 708, 710 (9th Cir. 2010)).

Likewise, in the Northern District of California, a Court recently held that a community college adjunct faculty member who was terminated for statements made during a heredity course regarding whether there was a biological basis for homosexuality could state a claim for violation of her First Amendment rights. Sheldon v. Dhillon, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110275 (N.D. Cal. 2009). In short, the Supreme Court and lower courts have long held that professors have wide latitude to decide what topics should and should not be discussed during class.

A further question arises with respect to whether or not Education Code Section 7054 (“No school district or community college district funds,services, supplies, or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate, including, but not limited to, any candidate for election to the governing board of the district.”) prohibits faculty members from discussing the Millionaires’ Tax initiative during class time.

If Section 7054 did prohibit this conduct, it would be trumped by the faculty members’ constitutional right of academic freedom. But we don’t even need to reach the constitutional question, because Section 7054 does not prohibit this conduct. In Desert Community College District (2007), PERB Dec. No. 1921, PERB held that Section 7054 is inapplicable to speech on school property:

“Education Code section 7054 prohibits only the use of District ‘funds, services, supplies, or equipment’ for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate. These four terms, however, do not include community college ‘premises’ or ‘property.’”

Just like the CSEA members in Desert Sands had the right to use District facilites to engage in political activities, our faculty members have the right to engage in political speech while in District classrooms.

Finally, as to the suggestion some have made that students may feel intimidated by a brief discussion of the Millionaires’ Tax during class time, we clearly have a higher opinion of our student body than some faculty do.  Our students, after all, are adults who are capable of hearing and processing the opinions of others without feeling intimidated. Taken to its logical conclusion, this negative view of our students would prevent professors from expressing any opinion in the classroom, for fear of offending or intimidating the students. That attitude is the antithesis of the very role of colleges and universities, and is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of academic freedom.

In summary, as a college professor, you have the right to discuss political and other controversial topics in your classroom, provided the time spent doing so is minimal and does not impede you from covering the topics required by your course syllabus.

Please let me know if you need any further clarification or have questions regarding the foregoing.  And, please see the message below to see how you can help in the Millionaires’ Tax campaign!
In Unity,
Jim Mahler, President
AFT Guild, Local 1931
San Diego & Grossmont-Cuyamaca
Community Colleges

From: AFT Guild, Local 1931 []


From: AFT Guild, Local 1931 []
Sent: Tuesday, March 06, 2012 7:13 AM
To: Jim Mahler
Subject: Need Your Help on Millionaires’ Tax Initiative!

Dear Colleagues,

You have hopefully already heard a lot either in the news or from your AFT site reps about the Millionaires’ Tax ballot initiative we are currently collecting signatures for.  In short, the Millionaires’ Tax would add an additional 3% State income tax on all personal income over $1 million, and 5% on all personal income over $2 million.  State analysts estimate this measure would bring in $6 billion to $9 billion per year, with 60% of these new revenues going to education.  That translates to approximately $26 million for the SDCCD (which would fund approximately 208 new FT faculty & 208 new FT staff positions) and  $11.5 million for the GCCCD  (which would fund approximately 90 new FT faculty & 90 new FT staff positions).

However, in order to make this a reality, we need to first collect enough signatures to get it on the November 2012 ballot–and that’s where you come in!

If you click here, you can download a copy of the petition.  We need 504,760 signatures statewide in order to qualify to be on the November ballot.  Our local goal is 5,000 signatures.  That’s less than two signatures per member!

Please consider helping your union in this petition drive.  Without all of your help, we can’t succeed.  Please download the petition and circulate it among your friends, neighbors, and family members.  And yes, it’s also OK to circulate it in your classes to your students, just don’t spend too much class time on it.

Below is more detailed information on the initiative.

Thanks in advance for your help!



Top Ten Reasons To Support the Millionaires Tax

Governor Jerry Brown has been getting a lot of media coverage lately for his efforts to promote his ballot measure which he is selling as a way to stop further cuts to education in the coming years and help solve California’s seemingly eternal budget crisis.  While the mainstream media has showered much attention on Brown, whose initiative would temporarily raise taxes on those earning over $250,000 and raise the sales tax on all Californians, very little notice has gone to the Millionaires Tax, which is vastly superior to the governor’s measure for many reasons.

While your AFT has put out a variety of pieces on the Millionaires Tax it is worth reviewing the central arguments why California voters should support the Millionaires Tax rather than the Governor’s initiative.  What are the top ten reasons to support the Millionaires Tax?

1. The Millionaires Tax is a permanent tax increase on millionaires while the Governor’s initiative is a temporary 4-year measure that will not bring in enough revenue to restore the cuts that have been made to education, infrastructure, and vital public services—not here in San Diego or anywhere else in the state.

2. The Millionaires Tax will not cost a single penny for anyone making less than $1 million a year.  The regressive sales tax in the Governor’s initiative will hit everyone and regressive taxes disproportionately affect the poor who already pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the rich do.

3. With 70% or higher support (depending on the poll), the Millionaires Tax enjoys the strongest support among the revenue proposals based on extensive polling and research. Even the backers of other initiatives admit that the Millionaires Tax is the easiest to pass.  While a recent poll showed the progressive taxes in the Governor’s measure to be supported by 68%, the same poll indicated that 64% of those questioned disapproved of the sales tax in his measure.  Thus the regressive taxes that Brown included to please the Chamber of Commerce will act as a lead weight on his initiative.  So if you want a clear winner in practical terms, it’s the Millionaires Tax.  If you want to make Grover Norquist’s crew happy, support the Governor’s plan.

4. The Millionaires Tax will bring in $6 to 9.5 billion annually for K-12, community colleges, CSU’s and UC’s, and to fund crucial services that have been decimated by cuts, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.  The LAO estimates that the Governor’s measure will only bring in $4.8 to 6 billion

5. Money from the Millionaires Tax goes directly into school districts and counties so Californians can see the results. As we know, Californians do not trust Sacramento. They want to see new funds go to work, not get lost in bureaucracy.

6. Higher education investment benefits working class and middle class students, whose tuition has increased 300% over the last decade.  It’s time to stop taxing students via tuition and fee increases and start asking the 1% to pay their fair share.

7. The campaign for the Millionaires Tax energizes and engages the progressive base, including rank and file union members, activists and college students to be FOR something, so that we can turn out the base to defeat paycheck deception and win other key electoral races for progressive candidates.  Taking money from Occidental Petroleum, the California Hospitals Association, Blue Shield, Indian casinos, and other corporate interests as the Governor’s campaign has done in exchange for a weaker measure including regressive taxes is a toxic compromise that only makes voters more cynical about the process.

8. The campaign for the Millionaires tax will strengthen labor-community coalitions to promote a progressive agenda while building a movement for future reforms – WITHOUT RELYING ON POLITICIANS.  We should not have to tie the future of California’s education system and other public services to the political calculations of Jerry Brown.  Many in the progressive community supported Brown’s efforts to win over a handful of Republicans to vote for a very reasonable extension of then currently existing regressive taxes last year.  He failed and schools and public services were cut yet again.  We should not take that risk again this time.  The price is too steep.

9. The Millionaires Tax is a unique expression of the broader national effort, most clearly seen in the Occupy Movement, to bring economic and tax equity to the 99% of Americans who have been left out, and can spur similar efforts in other states.

10. The Millionaires Tax resonates with President Obama’s reelection message (to have millionaires, who have benefited the most from society, pay their fair share).  It would bring the Buffet rule to California.

Thus, if you really care about the future of the state of California and want to take a big step toward actually restoring some of the devastating cuts we’ve seen most severely affect students, the sick, the elderly, sign the Millionaires Tax petition when it comes out in February and join the signature gathering campaign on your campus and in your community.

Going to endless rallies to protest cuts to health care, education, and other public services can be depressing as it seems things just keep getting worse and the wrong people always seem to pay the price.  Well now Californians have a chance to affect real change and put the Millionaires Tax on the ballot.  If we pass it, it will be a real victory for the 99% and we would see millions of dollars pour into our local community colleges.

Political insiders in back rooms in Sacramento don’t have the courage to give us this choice, but now we have the opportunity to frame the debate ourselves.  Let’s do it.

For more information on The Millionaires Tax see: