Campaigning on School Property
By Howard E. Seufer Jr.
Question: During the recent primary election campaign we were asked whether candidates and their supporters can lawfully campaign on school property by, for example, distributing leaflets. Is such activity legal?
Answer: Generally speaking, West Virginia does not prohibit election candidates from campaigning in the schools and on school property. Nor does it require a school district to permit such activities.
Many school districts have polices or practices that prohibit all campaigning during school hours on school property, regardless of whether the candidate is a school employee. Many of the policies are strictly enforced, even after hours in the football field parking lot.
But under the First Amendment, once a school district opens the door to one candidate, it may not be able to lawfully close it to others, regardless of their platforms and regardless of any school board policy to the contrary.
Of course, under no circumstances may public funds be used to subsidize political campaigns. People could also raise objections if campaigning interfered with instruction. Additionally, the election laws strictly regulate campaign activities near school-based polling places on election day.
The State Superintendent of Schools has in the past advised that it is permissible to allow campaigning on school property, but not required.
The separate question of whether, in the evening or on weekends, school facilities can be used for political “bean dinners” and similar activities appears to be governed by the same rules. According to the same State Superintendent of Schools interpretation, if it is permitted, then a school district cannot show favoritism to one political party or candidate over another. Of course, everyone must abide by the school district’s policies regarding the rental and use of school facilities.
These issues are different from those involving the discussion of political campaigns and candidates, the reading of associated literature, and presentations by political figures as part of the instruction of students, such as in a civics class. A county board may allow such activities, although it may want to take steps to ensure that they are legitimately a part of the instruction of students and not a mere guise for actual campaigning.
There is also the issue of teachers and students wearing campaign buttons to work, and driving vehicles with campaign bumper stickers. These expressive activities are treated differently under the law and have more to do with the personal rights of citizens to express their personal political beliefs in a non-disruptive manner.
Finally, campaigns for excess levies and bond issues involve different legal considerations to which school officials must be sensitive. The West Virginia Secretary of State’s website provides vital guidance about the activities of school personnel in excess levy and bond issue campaigns, the use of school facilities and equipment, and the contents and distribution of school district publications.