The California legislature is considering a bill that would put parents at risk of arrest, fines and imprisonment for violating a vague law that school district employees would themselves have the power to define.
Senate Bill 596, authored by Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-Glendale, creates a new crime and expands the scope of an existing crime. The new crime is subjecting a school employee — from a district employee all the way up to the state education officials — to “harassment” or “a credible threat” while the school employee is away from the school site or after school hours, for reasons related to the school employee’s “course of duties.”
It’s clear that the proposed law applies only to parents and parents’ groups, and not to members of the unions that are the district’s “labor partners.” According to the text of the bill, the law “shall not apply to otherwise lawful employee concerted activity, including, but not limited to, picketing and the distribution of handbills.”
So union members who want to “harass” the members of a board of education by picketing outside their homes will not be investigated under SB 596, but parents’ groups that protest school policies or curriculum will be at risk of a fine of $500 to $1,000 and imprisonment in a county jail “for not more than one year” on a first offense.
It’s already illegal for any person to make credible threats, stalk or harass another individual. SB 596 needlessly creates a new crime that applies specifically to school employees off-site or after hours.
Additionally, SB 596 expands the scope of another crime. It’s already illegal for a parent, guardian or other person to engage in conduct that “materially disrupts” classwork or extracurricular activities or creates “substantial disorder” in a place where a school employee is required to be in the course of that employee’s duties. This law would make it a crime to engage in conduct that involves “substantial disorder” at a school board or other governing board meeting of a local educational agency.
This bill is an outrage. By threatening parents with fines and imprisonment for criticizing or protesting education policies in a way that school employees themselves determine to be harassing or threatening, SB 596 is an attempt to intimidate and chill protected First Amendment activity.
The legislative analysis of SB 596 for the Assembly Public Safety Committee notes that “neither this bill nor existing law define what it means to ‘materially disrupt’ or ‘involve substantial disorder.’ Lacking definitions, these terms raise potential due process concerns.”
They sure do. It is well established that a criminal statute may not be so vague that reasonable people can only guess at its meaning and how it would be applied. Could charges be brought against a parent who raises her voice at a school board meeting, or says something insulting to the board members, or holds up a poster that the board members find offensive? It’s entirely possible. Parents could find themselves investigated by county, state and perhaps even federal authorities for allegedly violating a vague law by engaging in undefined “disruption” or “disorder.”
SB 596 likely would be declared unconstitutional. But the Legislature should shut it down right now and stop the use of the legislative process to intimidate and silence the citizens of California.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX News and is published from a syndicated feed.)