Public school administrators and teachers have an ethical
responsibility to maintain a non-partisan political climate, particularly
during a presidential election campaign. One California high school became a highly
partisan campus during the 2012 presidential campaign. And Andrew Breitbart joined the fight against indoctrination.
A Popular Culture Artwork
University High School is located in the city of Los Angeles, just west of the 405 Freeway and the UCLA campus.
The 2008 election of President Barack H. Obama inspired many students and faculty members at the school. History teacher and senior class advisor Kyle Laughlin suggested painting a mural commemorating the election. He led a group of seniors to paint a large mural with obvious inspiration from the famous Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign poster. They painted the mural on a west-facing wall of the East Gym at University High School on the weekend of May 12-13, 2009.
The mural included key elements from the original Obama 2008 campaign poster, especially its posterization effect in shades of red, white and blue. The stylized capital letter O for Obama with the blue upper circle and lower field of red and white stripes was incorporated in multiple Obama 2008 campaign communications. The campaign used the word CHANGE as a key theme, along with the word HOPE. Three Obama 2008 campaign phrases were painted next to the mural.
Original Obama mural photographed on
June 23, 2010 / James Ransom, Jr.
On April 3, 2011, President Barack Obama formally announced his candidacy for re-election as President.
The Second Obama Mural
The first Obama mural was defaced by vandals on May 17, 2011 and was quickly painted over by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which operates the school. With the permission of Principal Eric Davidson, students and faculty repainted the Obama mural by the end of that week.
The May 2011 replacement mural omitted the Obama 2008 campaign quotations which had been painted next to the original 2009 mural.
Is the Obama Mural a Campaign Advertisement?
The original Obama mural was clearly intended as a popular culture artwork when created in 2009. Did it become an active political campaign advertisement after the formal declaration of candidacy by President Obama on April 3, 2011?
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) distributed a Hatch Act Advisory Opinion to all federal offices on April 5, 2011, “OSC's Latest Guidance Regarding Pictures of President Obama in the Federal Workplace Now That He Is Officially a Candidate for Reelection.”
Because President Obama is a candidate for reelection, the Hatch Act prohibits an employee from displaying his photograph in the federal workplace…
The Hatch Act does not prohibit the continued display of official photographs of the President…
A mural rendering a clearly identifiable likeness of President (and 2012 presidential candidate) Barack Obama in the style of a political campaign poster is not a photograph, but it does perform a partisan political campaign function as defined by the Office of Special Counsel.
Did the School Principal Violate the Hatch Act?
Those affected by the Hatch Act include state and local public employees if their institution receives federal funds whose disbursement they supervise or that provide part or all of their compensation.
About the Hatch Act – State and Local Employees, Who Is Not Covered?
Hatch Act provisions do not apply to… individuals employed by educational or research institutions… which are supported in whole or in part by state or political subdivisions thereof… (e.g., administrators, teachers).
University High School is an educational institution supported in (large) part by the State of California, so the Hatch Act does not apply to its administrators and teachers.
Equal Space for Political Ads on Public Buildings?
The wall of a government-funded and operated public school building is clearly a public place. Displaying a giant campaign advertisement for a single partisan political candidate without providing equivalent opportunities for competing candidates creates a partisan advantage for that candidate.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) website includes a link to a brochure describing the formal complaint process for federal election law violations. I carefully drafted a complaint documenting the Obama mural and its history, had it notarized, and then mailed it off to the FEC Office of
General Council (OGC) on September 7, 2011.
The following week, I received a reply from the FEC OGC. The FEC staff did not see any violation of law in the complaint materials that I had enclosed. Equal display space for political campaign advertisements on public buildings is apparently not required by any federal election laws or regulations.
Calling Andrew Breitbart, Political Media Activist
When the federal, state, or local government won’t do the right thing, sometimes public shaming can make politicians and bureaucrats act.
I began searching for someone to provide a media channel to spread the word about the Obama campaign mural on campus. I found Andrew Breitbart, an energetic and enthusiastic conservative political activist who wielded a wicked media rapier. Best of all, Breitbart was local.
On the telephone, Andrew informed me that he was actually a semi-alumnus of University High School, having taken a summer-school class at Uni. I invited him to return to campus on Sunday, September 25, 2011 for the annual University High School Alumni Foundation Car Show so that he could see the Obama mural for himself.
On Sunday, Andrew arrived and I took his photograph in front of the mural.
After seeing the mural, Andrew immediately thought of a great tactic to publicize the mural. Have a Republican presidential candidate flash a photo of the Obama mural and request equal space for his or her own campaign mural on campus. That same afternoon I e-mailed Andrew copies of the photos that I took.
The next day I had a siege of vertigo. Falling on your face discourages you from public activities. Other things interceded.
I had the best of intentions to get back to Andrew… until the morning of March 1, 2012 when I learned with shock of his death by natural causes while he was out walking in our neighborhood.
A California public school has had a huge campaign advertisement for President Barack Obama painted on one of its buildings for
more than a year.
By allowing the advertisement to remain, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the State of California, and the United States Government have given de facto endorsement of this single candidate during a national election campaign.
This is not the lesson we should teach our children.