In a ruling hailed as a significant victory for Virginia's public employes, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld the right of a Prince William County school administrators' association to represent its views to the county school board.

The president of the AFL-CIO affiliated association, Dr. Richard Brown, three years ago was refused the right to speak at a public board meeting after the board cited state laws that prohibit collective bargaining with employe unions or employe groups.

Although those laws have been used frequently by localties throughout Virginia to cut off all communication with public employes organizations, the court today ruled such practices as unconstitutional under the First Amendment right of free speech. William W. Thompson, a lawyer for the Prince William Association of School Administrators and Supervisors, today called the ruling "extremely important" in affirming the "rights of public employes which have in practice been denied."

The ruling was of particular significance to school administrators, who have never before won a court case on the issue. "It's an outstanding victory that vindicates the right of school supervisors around the country as employes as well as citizens," said Peter S. O'Brien, president of the American Federation of School Administrators.

Virginia's generally weak public employe organizations -- which represent an estimated 10,000 workers around the state -- have long complained about the way local governments have interpreted the state's anti-collective bargaining laws. In one Roanoke case several years ago, the president of a city firefighters' organization was refused the right to address a city council meeting about problems in the fire department only moments after a representative of the Chamber of Commerce spoke on the same issue. There was a similar case last year in Henrico County.

"It's utterly ridiculous," said Raymond Via, president of the Virginia State Association of Firefighters. "They local governments have taken the attitude that people can't even talk and represent their point of view."

In addition to the laws that forbid collective bargaining, local governments have cited a 1948 resolution of the General Assembly that established it as "the policy of the Commonwealth" that no local government shall recognize a representative of a local employe organization. In the Prince William County case, Brown was told he could speak to the board as an individual but not as president of his association.

A lawyer for the school board could not be reached for comment.