Just under a year ago, a teachers’ strike at Strongsville City Schools ended. The strike lasted nearly two months. During the strike, the school board hired replacement teachers. Throughout the strike, these replacement teachers were subject to repeated physical, verbal, and emotional harassment, threats of violence, and—in a couple of rare instances—actual violence.
During the strike, the president of the Cleveland Teachers’ Union made several public records requests for the names, home addresses, and phone numbers of the replacement teachers, eventually filing for a court order in April 2013 to force the school to turn over the information. The union argued that the school district had a duty under Ohio public records law to comply. The school district refused, citing a well-established exception regarding public safety.
The strike ended, but the school steadfastly continued to refuse to turn over the information. After all, the end of a strike doesn’t necessarily mean the end of all the bad feelings surrounding it, right? Well, in October 2013 the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals did not agree. Citing the fact that nothing had happened since the end of the strike, the Court ruled that no one would be in danger anymore. And, in a recent opinion, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed, ordering the school district to turn over the replacement teachers’ information.
The Court first noted that the school board was correct that case law establishes a right to privacy where there is a “substantial risk” of bodily harm if personal information is disclosed. It also noted that, in some circumstances, the potential for nonphysical harm—reputation, harassment, etc.—would also preclude disclosure. The Court agreed with the lower court, though, that the danger had subsided with time. It reached this conclusion despite the fact that the replacement teachers were told that the decision to cross the picket line would “follow them for the rest of their careers.”
The decision will likely be one of concern for many public employers, and not just for the most obvious reason. As the dissent puts it, “the passage of a few months after the settlement of the strike without incident does not permit the inference that the risk of disclosing the replacement teachers’ names has diminished, nor does a decision based on a lack of new incidents adequately consider the animosity that picketers and others displayed toward the replacement teachers during the strike.”
Bigger picture, a case like this could chill the willingness of replacement workers to cross a picket line. The knowledge that their names, addresses, and phone numbers could become public only a few months after the end of a strike could serve as a powerful disincentive.