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South Korea court rules for teachers' union in free speech case

South Korea court said that four leaders of a teachers' union who faced dismissal were not supporting or opposing a political group. The ruling touches on the sensitive issue of whether teachers and civil servants should be politically neutral.

By Ben HancockCorrespondent / January 20, 2010



Seoul, South Korea

A South Korean court acquitted this week four leaders of a teachers union who faced dismissal for their role in organizing petitions critical of the government.

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The government said the action of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU) violated laws barring teachers' unions and civil servants from political activity; the union said it was exercising constitutionally protected free speech and released a second statement, this time with more than 28,000 signatures.

Tuesday's ruling sided with the teachers' union, saying their statement neither supported nor opposed a political group but simply expressed opinions about the nation.

The Jeonju Regional Court's ruling on Tuesday is the first since prosecutors indicted dozens of union heads and teachers last year at the behest of the Education Ministry, which has sought to temporarily suspend or otherwise punish thousands of others.

Eighty-six union members are still awaiting trial, according to the KTU.

"It is clearly a significant decision in terms of freedom of speech," says Kang Won-Taek, a political science professor at Soongsil University in Seoul. "And it's more important because it is against the government policy toward the KTU."

Mr. Kang says the ruling touches an ideological nerve here about whether educators and civil servants should be politically neutral, especially because the KTU is branded as a left-wing group.

Government restricts union activity

In recent months, the conservative administration of President Lee Myung-bak has restricted union activity. In December it officially banned public worker unions from opposing government policies.

The petition released by the KTU in June carried nearly 18,000 member signatures and made a range of demands -- from additional support for poor students and the protection of the free press, to the halting of a proposed nationwide canal project.

It followed a number of similar statements released by civic and professor-led groups that called for the protection of democratic freedoms. The outpouring came shortly after former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide amid what many called a politically motivated corruption probe into him and his family.

Government disappointed

Prosecutors and the Education Ministry expressed disappointment. “The KTU teachers’ petition likely made an extremely large impact on students whose values are not yet established,” a ministry official told the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest daily. “That kind of thing is precisely what is meant by teacher political activity.”

Kim Hanseong, a constitutional law professor at Yonsei University, called the verdict “valuable” and echoed Kang in saying it reaffirmed the protection of freedom of speech.

South Korean precedent laws are weaker compared with those in the United States, Mr. Kim noted, but said he believes other courts are likely to rule along similar lines in handling the teachers’ cases. He said it may also open the way for other public worker unions to operate more freely.

The verdict has fanned anger among right-leaning politicians over recent decisions made by the courts. Professor Kang said he was wary of increasing criticism of the judiciary because it undermines the idea of separation of powers and court independence.

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