Three times, the state Republican Party has run attack ads against Tony Evers, the Democratic nominee, tying him to the teacher. (In fact, as we were preparing this fact check, the GOP released another, though broader attack ad, tying Evers to that case and two others.) None of the first three GOP ads fared well in our assessments.
Now, the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee is coming to the defense of Evers, the state schools superintendent, in the Madison-area teacher case. Its TV ad, released Aug. 20, 2018, makes this two-part claim:
When the law stopped Tony Evers from revoking a teacher's license for viewing pornography, Tony worked with lawmakers from both parties to change the law so offenders could be kicked out of the classroom.
On the first part of the claim, the ad’s use of the word stopped goes a bit too far.
Meanwhile, the ad partially undercuts itself on the second part. While the narrator is saying Evers "worked with lawmakers" to change the law, which is a fair characterization, words on the screen go too far in declaring: "Evers changed the law."
The ad alludes to the case of Andy Harris, a middle-school science teacher in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, west of Madison. He was fired in 2010 for viewing images of nudity on his school computer and showing at least one of them to a female co-worker.
Harris got his job back after an arbitrator ruled he had been improperly fired. The arbitrator concluded that Harris’ behavior did not endanger any students — a necessary factor under state law at the time. The decision to give Harris back his job was upheld by two courts.
Evers did have the discretion on whether to go through license revocation proceedings, which Harris could have challenged.
But Evers decided against seeking revocation after concluding, as the arbitrator did, that the teacher’s behavior didn’t endanger kids, as defined by the law at that time.
In other words, in the view of Evers’ department, there was no legal basis to take away Harris’ license.
At the time, state law defined immoral conduct in such cases as "conduct or behavior that is contrary to commonly accepted moral or ethical standards and that endangers the health, safety, welfare, or education of any pupil."
After the Harris case, the law was changed so that immoral conduct includes "the intentional use of an educational agency’s equipment to download, view, solicit, seek, display, or distribute pornographic material."
GOP state Rep. Steve Kestell, who authored the bill, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Evers’ Department of Public Instruction did not push the bill.
The Greater Wisconsin Committee did not respond to our requests for information to back the statement in the ad.
But emails provided to the Journal Sentinel, and to us, by Evers’ department show the department worked with lawmakers in the sense that the department’s legislative liaison discussed the legislation with Kestell as it was being drafted. And department officials testified at hearings in favor of the legislation.
But while Evers played a supportive role he did not, despite the words on the screen in the ad, change the law himself or even take the lead in doing so.
The Greater Wisconsin Committee says: "When the law stopped Tony Evers from revoking a teacher's license for viewing pornography, Tony worked with lawmakers from both parties to change the law so offenders could be kicked out of the classroom."
On the first part of the claim, the state law in place at the time didn’t actually stop Evers from trying to revoke the license who viewed pornography at school. Evers could have initiated revocation proceedings, which the teacher could have challenged.
But Evers concluded that the law didn’t allow for a revocation because the teacher’s behavior didn’t endanger children. The same conclusion had been reached by an arbitrator. And two courts upheld the arbitrator’s decision. Moreover, the fact that Evers’ department backed, and Walker signed, a change in the law supports the idea that the law didn’t favor revocation at the time.
On the second part of the claim, Evers did work with lawmakers to change the law, as the narrator states in the ad, but he didn’t change the law as words on the screen in the ad claim.
For a statement that is partially accurate, our rating is Half True.