Michael Shreffler, superintendent of the Southeast Local School District (which is actually in northeast Ohio), was angry after attending a Summit County event featuring Gov. John Kasich and Speaker of the House William Batchelder. So on September 9, he did what many have done: Sat down at his computer and wrote an email.
“This Governor is a bully and the legislature is his posse. We have to stand up to this bully AND to his posse.”
–Southeast Local Superintendent Michael Shreffler, in an email to staff
And then he pressed send.
Shreffler’s email criticizing Kasich and Batchelder and urging readers to “speak up and be active in government” has been forwarded around the state, reaching beyond the original addressees of district staff with access to email. The Dayton Daily News and the Daily Record and blogs Plunderbund and Join the Future have all written about Shreffler’s email.
Kasich spokesperson Rob Nichols said that Shreffler’s account of the event is not accurate. Two people who attended the event said that Kasich “did not use the kind of language or say the kinds of things Shreffler claims.” Shreffler said in a phone interview last week that he stands by his words.
What are the laws and guidelines that apply here?
Southeast Local policy allows staff members to use email for personal communications as long as those emails are “limited in number…initiated during non-work periods, and do not interfere with the primary intended uses of the system.” It bars using email in ways “that constitute defamation (libel or slander).”State law would bar Shreffler (or other superintendents, for that matter), from using the district’s email system to send an email regarding a political candidate or party, University of Dayton political science Professor Grant Neeley said. Those rules don’t apply to ostensibly non-partisan elections like the SB 5 referendum.
But the distinction between partisan and non-partisan elections is becoming fuzzier with the growth of high-profile referenda, Neeley said.
“We have so many quote non-partisan issues on the ballot,” he said. “The question is going to be, ‘Do these laws need to be looked at to include these non-partisan issue-based elections?”
Still, school district administrators should think twice before hitting send on emails like Shreffler’s, said American Association of School Administrators Executive Director Daniel Domenech. While school administrators don’t give up their right to free speech, they should not use district resources–including email systems–for political messages, Domenech said.
“You have to be very careful,” he said.