Woodland Park teachers win their fight to restore First Amendment rights after policy ban

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Pikes Peak dominates the view from Woodland Park High School in Teller County, April 12, 2023.

Woodland Park educators have won their fight to strike down what they argued was an unconstitutional school district policy that prohibited them from speaking to journalists or on social media about district matters, according to the local teacher’s union. The union said the federal court-mediated agreement to replace the policy was reached Tuesday.

“This is a huge win for Woodland Park educators,” said Nate Owen, president of Woodland Park Education Association and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We’re overjoyed that teachers and other employees can finally speak on matters of public concern without fear of retaliation for simply exercising their right to free speech.”

In a statement, district officials said they are delighted with the outcome with both parties agreeing that “the policy’s new language addresses the concerns raised by both sides during the dispute.” 

Woodland Park, just northwest of Colorado Springs, is a small school district that’s drawn national attention for a series of policy changes — big ones that include mental health staffing and social studies curriculum and a ban on teachers speaking to the media without prior approval from the superintendent. 

In February, district officials changed the policy about communicating to the press and on social media after facing criticism over the policy changes. Officials believed the ban was necessary to prevent “dissident” teachers from speaking out and argued it would prevent disruptions in the district. 

In August, the Woodland Park Education Association filed a federal lawsuit against the school district and the district’s board of education over a policy that prohibited employees from speaking to the press or posting on social media about district matters without the superintendent’s prior approval.

The lawsuit alleged the district and board "chilled" teachers’ First Amendment rights to free speech and free association and violated state open meetings laws when it revised a district policy and effectively instituted a gag order against teachers. It also stated that the way in which the ban policy was enacted violates Colorado open meetings law. 

In October, 81 school staff wrote a letter to district officials alleging that Superintendent Ken Witt and other district leaders were “actively harming students and the community of Woodland Park.” Several teachers defied the ban and spoke at a press conference about their concerns. 

In court records, the district argued that lifting the ban on talking publicly about schools “would embolden dissident School District employees to make public statements” and "would limit the school district’s ability to direct and govern its staff.”

Both sides agreed to federal mediation after a district judge suggested the constitutional claims had merit.

The new policy strikes the prohibitions on teachers and strikes a statement that the violation of those policies is insubordination. It clarifies that school district employees are free to express themselves in their private capacity but can’t divulge “deliberative and confidential” information until that information has already been shared by the district to someone outside the district. The teacher’s union said the new policy protects the First Amendment rights of educators in Woodland Park.

Since the ban on speaking to the press, multiple teachers told CPR they were terrified of speaking on-the-record and asked to be anonymous without any identifying features in news reports.   

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has twice found such restrictions on public school employees’ speech unconstitutional. In a spring interview with CPR, Superintendent Ken Witt was asked about the ban.

“I think the policy speaks for itself,” he said.

Owen, the plaintiff, who is also a science teacher in Woodland Park, said it’s critical that teachers are able to share their voice to advocate for their students.

“It’s a victory for the community at large, which deserves to know what’s happening in our children’s schools.” 

The district does not have a collecting bargaining agreement with the union but as part of the agreement the union’s president will meet with Superintendent Witt monthly as a way to hear union concerns. 

“WPSD is committed to continuing its practice of seeking input and perspectives from educators directly rather than through union organizations,” the district said in a statement.