Attorney General Sam Olens says his advice to state education officials to limit political activity on a contentious charter school referendum had not established new legal precedent but is instead “pretty common sense.”
Olens, on a Thursday afternoon conference call with reporters, said that his recent guidance to school Superintendent John Barge and local system chiefs to not expend state resources “did not break new legal ground.”
After a prominent education reform advocate accused Barge last month of using taxpayer dollars to agitate against a November charter school referendum, the attorney general’s office warned the superintendent in a letter this week to cool his coordination of local school boards in a campaign against the measure.
The letter, Olens said, “simply restated what the Georgia Supreme Court made very clear more than 30 years ago: local governments cannot expend taxpayer resources to tell taxpayers how to vote.”
The result of his advice was a thrush of public interest and questions. Rather than settling the dispute, the letter actually inflamed the debate, with supporters and opponents interpreting it in wildly different ways.
Opponents of charter amendment said Olens was marginalizing their right of expression, but Olens said nothing in his letter represented a new reading of the law.
“This rule applies equally to supporters and opponents of the amendment,” he said. “And this rule also applies only to the expenditure of public resources — government officials and employees have full First Amendment rights to express their personal opinions. They simply don’t have a right, under the First Amendment or any other legal provision, to expend public resources in communicating their personal opinion.”
Olens’ letter is below.
- James Richardson