Beshear on teacher subpoenas: It’s time to stop these petty attacks
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear on Tuesday demanded that the governor and Labor Cabinet rescind subpoenas sent to several Kentucky school districts over teacher sickouts during the 2019 General Assembly.
He gave them 10 days to withdraw the subpoenas.
Beshear said at a Tuesday morning news conference that the subpoenas were an unlawful attempt to bully teachers. ”The bullying has reached a new level.”
Gov. Matt Bevin did not immediately respond to requests for a comment. But Labor Cabinet spokeswoman Haley Bradburn said “Attorney General Beshear is wrong, The Labor Cabinet has complied and will continue to comply with Kentucky law.”
Beshear said in a letter Tuesday to Bevin and Labor Secretary David Dickerson that the sickouts did not violate labor law and any attempt to punish or fine teachers who participated would violate their First Amendment Rights. The Bevin administration’s actions may constitute “intimidation, threats or coercion” in violation of Kentucky law.
“These ‘sickout’ subpoenas represent another abuse of power by the governor,” Beshear said in a news release.
“Enough is enough. It is time we stop these petty attacks on our teachers,” Beshear said at the news conference. “I’m going to do everything I can to stop them.”
Bevin, a Republican, is running for re-election this year and Beshear, a Democrat, is competing for the party’s nomination to face Bevin. Beshear said that regardless of his run for governor, as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, it is his job “to stand up for people when they are being bullied.”
Fayette County Public Schools is among the Kentucky districts that received the Labor Cabinet subpoena for teacher absence records during recent legislative protests.
Jefferson and several other districts that canceled classes said they also received the subpoenas asking for absence records, medical affidavits confirming illnesses, records of teachers making requests for absences, documents regarding the closing of schools, and district policies. The subpoenas were issued by the Labor Cabinet as part of an inquiry into possible violations of labor law. Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recently said that such violations could result in $1,000 fines to individual teachers.
Beshear said the sickouts were not related to conditions of the school employees’ employment, but were related to their objections to legislation and concerns over an “attack” on public school funding. Therefore, the sickouts constituted free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Teachers do not surrender their constitutional rights to free speech when they become public employees, the attorney general said.
In a similar Michigan case, a court ruled that a teachers’ sickout was based on “complaints to the state government to rectify educational, financial and structural problems in the Detroit Public School District, and not issues concerning the rights, privileges or conditions of their employment,” according to Beshear. That court found their actions were not in violation of the state’s labor laws, but instead constitutionally protected free speech.
Beshear promised to take the Bevin administration to court. He’s done that in multiple previous cases.
Last week, Beshear argued another case in front of the Kentucky Supreme Court, saying the “governor does not have the authority to rewrite state laws that control the independence of the public school board systems.”
“I will not hesitate to take appropriate action to protect the public from their own government,” he said.
Beshear has won prior court battles with Bevin over pensions and university funding.