Alabama plays Scrooge as Christmas approaches
The Alabama legislature passed a law that went into effect in 2011 dealing with the receipt of gifts by public officials and employees. It may have been originally directed at politicians and lobbyists but, as written, it also applies to school teachers and public school employees. Consequently, it raises some interesting dilemmas.
The law allows gifts to teachers by students when they are of de minimus value. “De minimus” means a trivial or small matter – something of little significance. However, the law fails to state the approved maximum amount or how “de minimus” is defined. So, facing a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $6,000 fine, a teacher must choose between breaking the law or breaking a first-graders heart, as one teacher put it.
The law seems to lump teachers with lobbyists and politicians. The latter obviously need written rules about accepting gifts and the appearance of impropriety when doing the people’s work. But do teachers’ require the threat of incarceration or a heavy fine when considering a handkerchief or scarf from an appreciative or admiring student? The sponsor of the legislation explained that it protects teachers against accusations of favoritism to students who give them big gifts and avoids embarrassment for low income students. Aren’t there better ways to address this concern? Wouldn’t a simple statement from the school principal or teacher as the holidays approach be enough to curb one’s holiday spirit and generosity?
The law’s sponsor conceded that the likely consequence would be a small fine imposed by the school. Referral for criminal prosecution would be reserved for large gifts accompanied by the teacher changing a grade.
This law, if challenged in court by a teacher, may be determined to be vague and overbroad. We’ll see.