Alabama Ethics Law: The Grinch That Stole the Teachers' Christmas

As a teacher, I recall the last week before holiday break each December was typically marked by students exchanging gifts with one another, and quite often handing a token present to me. By the end of the week my desk was cluttered with homemade goodies – primarily cookies, preserves, and fudge. Every now and then a student wanting to show his or her appreciation or, arguably, wanting to try to get in my good graces would offer me something nicer. I still have a lovely oak and walnut cutting board in my kitchen that one student’s father made for me in his woodshop. Gift certificates and gift cards also weren’t uncommon.

However, were I a teacher in Alabama, accepting gifts this Christmas with a monetary value could result in a jail sentence and a fine up to $6,000. The state passed a tough ethics law, which took effect earlier this year, that limits what public employees – including teachers – can accept as gifts. The statute restricts anything in excess of "de minimis" value, but it doesn't define that amount.

One news report says the sponsor of the law, Sen. Bryan Taylor, said it protects teachers against accusations of favoritism to students who give them big gifts and avoids embarrassment for low-income students. The report also says the state Ethics Commission has stated giving teachers an exemption would weaken the law.

Gov. Robert Bently reportedly wants lawmakers to change the law next year to remove teachers. He says teachers were never the target of legislation to crack down on public corruption.

The state Ethics Commission, in an effort to clarify what teachers may and may not accept, identified several gifts that would not violate the law. They are:

  1. Fruit baskets and homemade cookies;
  2. Christmas ornaments;
  3. Coffee mugs;
  4. Items that help the teacher in performance of his/her duties, such as notebooks, pens, school supplies, etc.; and
  5. CDs or books with a nominal value.