OPT OUT NEWS: The sidewalk in front of the school is a public way, and the police cannot interfere with non-violent leafleting on that public way

Despite some misinformation from principals and Chicago Public Schools officials, the sidewalk in front of a public school in Chicago is a public way -- not CPS property. Therefore, parents, teachers and students handing out leaflets on Opt Out can legally do so on that sidewalk, and principals who call the police are acting illegally.

The First Amendment long ago has been held to include that sidewalk, and teachers should not be conned into going "across the street" or being diverted from exercising their First Amendment rights. Despite the established laws in Chicago (some of which I helped to create through federal litigation which also established the right of teachers to sell the print edition of Substance inside the schools), some CPS officials, and a couple of misinformed union officials,have been suggesting that teachers "go across the street" if ordered to do so by school principals.

If principals call the police, a teacher who is leafleting on her own time should ask the police officers responding why they are there and on what authority they are asking a teacher to move from a public way. Usually, the police will inform the principal that he has made a legal mistake and that there is no basis for restricting legal First Amendment activity on a public way. The only reasonable restriction the police can establish is to inform the person or persons doing the leafleting that they should not interfere with the flow of traffic.

Teachers and others also have the right to sell the print edition of Substance inside their schools provided they do so during non-instructional time and in a manner that does not disrupt instruction. This right was established in a federal First Amendment lawsuit (S.U.B.S. v. Rohter) as early as 1980.

Members of the press also have the right to attend public meetings, such as local school council meetings, inside public schools, and to photograph, take notes and otherwise participate in those meetings as press. Recently, CPS officials have been desperately trying to restrict the free speech and free press rights of teachers and others as the Opt Out movement explodes across the city.


February 28, 2014 at 9:41 PM

By: Neal Resnikoff

Right to leaflet on a sidewalk outside a school

There is a right to leaflet on the public sidewalk outside of a school. The Supreme Court knocked down a Chicago ordinance banning picketing or leafleting-- Police Department of the City of Chicago, 408 U.S. 92 (1972). And the Supreme Court later declared that no building public or private is so important that the City can ban leafleting on its sidewalk. In United States v Grace, 461 U.S. 171 (1983), the U.S> Supreme Court invalidated a statute banning expressive activities on the Supreme Court's own sidewalk. A policeman or police supervisor or the police law department should be able to verify this right and allow continued leafleting on the public way. The Board of Education law department may also be able to verify this. I myself have been challenged a number of times by school officials or others and had police called, but have never been successfully chased off a sidewalk, let alone arrested for leafleting on a public sidewalk (not school "property"). --Neal Resnikoff

September 24, 2014 at 10:49 PM

By: Neal Resnikoff

Right to Distribute on the sidewalk in front of a school is challenged once again

Right to Distribute on the sidewalk in front of a school is challenged once again

Our legal right is to distribute on the public sidewalk in front of a school, as has been spelled in out previous posts to Substance.

Friday morning, September 19, as distributors for the newsletter of Albany Park, North Park, Mayfair Neighbors for Peace and Justice--For Peace and Justice-- were handing out the newsletters to students, Security in their red jackets came out to say we could not do that in front of the school. We explained that we have been doing this for years, and that we have a right to leaflet on the public sidewalk. The new principal happened to walk by at that moment. Luckily, the vice principal, who was with her, knew and said that we had dealt with that issue previously, including checking with the police law department, and that we could distribute on the sidewalk.

However, he felt he had to come back out several minutes later to state that distributing right in front of the steps could be considered blocking the entrance to the building (even though there were not students even approaching the steps at that moment), and that is a legal no no. Nonetheless, we continued to do our leafleting, including in front of the steps, without obstructing any incoming student, and had no further hassle from the administration there on that day.

September 25, 2014 at 4:18 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Outlaws with law degrees... Sidewalks and the First Amendment

Neil Resnikoff is right that citizens have a right to distribute literature (such as the Albany Park newsletter) on public ways. However, the Board of Education has been trying to undermine the First Amendment rights of citizens (including public school parents, teachers, and students) for the past several years. Last year during the Opt Out and test Boycott organizing, a number of principals tried (and some succeeded) in claiming that it was "illegal" to leaflet on the sidewalk in front of the school. While that was not true, it sometimes worked because the teacher(s) were unwilling to stand their ground.

There are other First Amendment rights that the Board is trying to undermine as well, and it is only by exercising and insisting on them that citizens (including parents, teachers and students) will secure them -- once again.

For example, in 1981 Substance won a major First Amendment case which held that we were protected when we sold -- that's right SOLD -- the old print editions of Substance in schools during our "self directed" time or during lunch. Recently, the Board of Education issued a so-called "Ethnic Policy" which once again attempts to undermine the rights of those who work in the schools. While it may be true that you can't wear an election campaign button during class, it is certainly not true that you can't wear that button during your lunch period -- or when you are attending after school activities.

For about a quarter century, the Board of Education's so-called "Law Department" had prided itself on being what I call the "Outlaw Department." Following the lead of their counterparts in the corporate world, the Board's lawyers work overtime to help the Board and CPS executives undermine and illegally violate the rights of citizens.

That was not always the case. In fact, the reason that the Law Department in Illinois school districts reports directly to the Board (as opposed to reporting to the General Supt. or in Chicago's strange case, the "Chief Executive Officer") is that the lawyers are supposed to be ready to tell the Board when something is illegal -- not to deploy everywhere to promote their masters' illegality. Sadly, under the current CPS attorney (James Bebley) and his predecessors (all the way back to Marilyn Johnson), the Board's lawyers have been cynically working overtime to undermine the rights of citizens and to defend the Board in every case, no matter how ridiculous, illegal, or unethical. The current unethical "Ethics" policy is just the latest example.

The biggest lesson from this, far bigger than one sidewalk in front of one Northwest Side elementary school in September, is that the officials of CPS -- from the "CEO" to the principals, and backed by the "security" people and the lawyers -- have become outlaws. That sets a bad example for the children, to say the least, and also wastes millions of dollars in public money every time the Board's Outlaw Department again and again defends the violations of the law and peoples' rights that are policy today in Chicago's public schools.

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

4 + 4 =