N.J. panel to hear dispute over anti-teachers union emails sent to educators
Wayne's teachers union claims the school district should have blocked anti-union emails a third party was sending to its members. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
A little-known state commission is set to decide whether school districts must block anti-union emails sent to their teachers.
The Public Employment Relations Commission agreed last week to a hearing to potentially settle the dispute, which finds the Wayne Education Association accusing the Wayne Board of Education of violating state law by not stopping a third party from sending emails to teachers urging them to revoke their union dues.
Both sides wanted the commission to issue a ruling in their favor, but the body said it needs more information to reach a decision and cautioned that the case could bring First Amendment issues that may be a better fit for state courts.
Since 2019, the Sunlight Policy Center, a group critical of teachers unions, has sent emails to Wayne teachers urging them to revoke their dues and providing links to paperwork needed to do just that. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the prior year that public unions could not collect dues from nonmembers they represented in bargaining.
“You were essentially forced to join the NJEA and have your $1,500 in dues withheld from your paycheck, but you can choose to stop paying dues and keep the $1,500 for yourself — every year for the rest of your teaching career,” the group said in one email.
The New Jersey Education Association is the statewide teachers union.
Wayne’s union, which claims Sunlight Policy Center’s emails caused declines in membership, alleges the district’s email system should have filtered the messages under policies that prohibit political advocacy and bar the use of district resources for purposes unrelated to work.
It also claims that, by allowing the emails, the district violated a state law that forbids public employers from encouraging union members to relinquish their membership or revoke their dues.
The district said technical limitations prevent it from filtering the emails and argued doing so would violate a district policy that prohibits viewpoint-based restrictions on third-party emails.
Wayne Superintendent Mark Toback told the New Jersey Monitor that the district looks forward to presenting the case to a Public Employment Relations Commission hearing examiner but declined further comment, citing the ongoing legal dispute.
Wayne’s school board contends that blocking emails from the Sunlight Policy Center would infringe on the group’s freedom of speech, arguing that public employees’ email inboxes are essentially public forums because their email addresses are available to the public.
The district has previously filtered emails sent by the Sunlight Policy Center. Between 2019 and Aug. 30, 2022, the district filtered 3,181 of the 5,279 emails the center sent to Wayne teachers. It’s unclear how many of those emails were diverted because of the district’s spam filter.
In its unanimous rejection of summary judgment for either side, the Public Employment Relations Commission said it needs more information about how the district’s email system functions and the degree of the school board’s control over it.
And the school board needs to directly address whether state law requires it to block emails urging union members to revoke their dues, the commission said.
The commission said it would also need to determine whether school email systems are a public forum, though it cautioned such constitutional questions are better suited to New Jersey’s courts than they are to an administrative body like PERC.
The Wayne Education Association and its attorney did not immediately return requests for comment.
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