Jamaica wants to censor politically active school officials

The Ministry of Education has designed a concept paper that proposes a range of regulations that would effectively encroach on the right to freedom of expression among teachers and school board members who are politically active.

According to the paper, while Jamaica is a thriving democracy and political participation should be encouraged, and while teachers are not barred from active politics, there is an issue of concern as it relates to the ministry and its employees.

“The Education Act and civil legislation are silent on this matter save and except the Political Code of Conduct and civil legislation, such as the Defamation Act and Cyber Crimes Act. The issue of concern, however, is more on the employer and employee relationship and board and ministry/minister relationship in the context of political activities, since the Political Code of Conduct would generally deal with the political conduct broadly defined. The minister, under the Education Act, is empowered to make regulations and issue policy directives as is deemed fit from time to time,” the concept paper read.

Among the proposed regulations are that:

1. A teacher or principal who seeks to become a political representative should notify their school board. Time off for political activities will be subjected to the normal rules relating to leave or casual leave.

2. While all Jamaicans have a constitutional right for freedom of association and free speech, this must be constrained by the employer/employee relationship. No teacher or principal should use sensitive information from his school of employment or the education sector as personal attacks on another educator, school board member, Opposition spokesperson on education, or the minister of education, whoever he or she may be.

3. Teachers or principals who are politically active must refrain from personal attacks on opponents in any media form, including social media.

4. Teachers or principals who are politically active are restricted from criticising the programmes and policies of the Ministry of Education in any media, including social media, unless it is in the context of a public meeting of the teachers’ union or any other such non-political forum.

5. A teacher or principal who is politically active must follow all the policies and directives of the Government and Ministry of Education and must not allow political bias or allegiance to negatively affect the efficient administration of such policies and directives. It will be a disciplinary offence for such conduct and shall be considered professional misconduct.

6. A teacher and principal must always avoid situations that can be considered a conflict of interest.

For school boards of public education institutions, the ministry is proposing that:

1. School boards must follow the policies and directives of the Ministry of Education without political bias.

2. A school board must be fair in [its] administration of discipline to each staff or principal without political bias or victimisation.

3. School board members are not allowed to criticise the minister of education or Ministry of Education personnel in any public fora, including social media.

4. Concerns about policy matters or other relevant matters should be addressed in writing, including electronic form, to the relevant officers of the Ministry of Education, permanent secretary or the office of the minister of education.

5. It will be considered a breach of good governance where there is an active principal in a named political office and the board chairman is a fellow active member of the said association or organisation or from the opposite political organisation. Where this conflict arises, the board chairman should resign, or the minister shall exercise regulations 79.3 to remedy the situation.

Yesterday, chairman of the Opposition People’s National Party’s Education Commission Elaine Foster Allen said the proposed concept paper is an attempt to “intimidate, restrict and censor” persons who wish to speak out or give healthy criticism of policies that are being discussed or have been implemented.

“We should know that the public service has a code of conduct in their staff orders for public servants. Under 4.2.6 it speaks about political activity. ‘Officers are expressly forbidden to engage in any type of partisan political activity in any elections at any level. In the exercise of official duties, no service or benefit should be denied or provided to anyone on the basis of partisan political affiliation’,” Foster Allen said at a PNP press conference at its headquarters in St Andrew.

She said the concept paper put together by the education ministry suggesting that board members not criticise the minister or ministry is a breach of the civil rights of these members.

“…We cannot afford any sort of situation in Jamaica that shuts down people from thinking and speaking, and speaking honestly, speaking truth to power… I would want us to think that we ought not to go down that road in restricting and censoring and intimidating people with views that are important to be aired,” she said.

Opposition spokesman on education Ronald Thwaites, at the same time, said that the party “repudiates” any effort to muzzle criticism that is constructively or lawfully issued in respect of Government or Opposition activity.

Minister of Education Senator Ruel Reid could not be reached for a comment up to press time yesterday.

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Source: Jamaica Observer

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