First Amendment Rights of Public Employees

By Daniel Horwitz:

News Channel 2 viewers were treated to a fun story last night about the free speech rights of public employees.  According to the segment, Nashville District Fire Chief Tim Lankford was recently disciplined for controversial, conservative-leaning statements that he made on his facebook page, which were perceived by his employer as being “racial, stereotypical, and threatening toward members of the public.”  The statements included posts such as: “The first man who goes into the restroom with my daughter won’t have to worry about the surgery,” as well as a diatribe about the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling that concluded with Chief Lankford stating that he was “so disturbed” by the opinion that he could “barely function at his job.”  Chief Lankford’s discipline also comes on the heels of independent sanctions being levied against two local police officers and a Sherriff’s deputy for statements made on facebook about the military lifting its ban on transgender service members and about the Black Lives Matter movement.  All of which led News Channel 2’s reporter to wonder:  Can public employees be disciplined for their speech without running afoul of the First Amendment?

Last night’s segment does not explore the applicable First Amendment doctrine in detail, but the short answer is “sometimes.”   Sadly, for most of the 20th century, public employers had an unfettered right to take adverse employment actions against public employees for their speech whether it was expressed inside or outside of the workplace.  Specifically, the Court’s thinking went: “A policeman may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.”[1]

Happily, though – at least for those of us who believe that more speech contributes to a better democracy – the Supreme Court eventually decided to change course.  In a series of cases beginning with the Court’s 1968 decision in Pickering v. Board of Education, the Court aimed to strike a balance “between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”[2]  Approximately four decades of tweaking later, following the Supreme Court’s contentious 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos,[3] the current state of the doctrine is as follows:

Determining whether a public employee’s First Amendment rights have been violated currently requires a three-part inquiry.

First, to be protected, the employee’s speech must address a matter of public concern, rather than a purely private matter.[4]  “Matters of public concern include speech that ‘relat[es] to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.’”[5]  This requirement is broadly construed, so in addition to encompassing commentary on political issues writ large,[6] “speech falling into this category includes informing the public that a governmental entity failed to discharge its governmental responsibilities or bringing to light actual or potential wrongdoing or breach of public trust on the part of a governmental entity or any officials therein.”[7]

Second, the employee must also have been speaking as a private citizen, rather than speaking pursuant to his or her official job responsibilities.  “When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties,” the Supreme Court has explained, “employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”[8]  Thus, although speech by public employees on matters of their employment is sometimes protected under federal and state whistleblower laws, for First Amendment purposes, public employees who speak in their capacity as public employees enjoy no First Amendment protection whatsoever.

Third, if the employee’s speech involved a matter of public concern and was not made pursuant to the employee’s official duties, then courts must attempt to “balance the interests of the public employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”[9]  In Garcetti, the Supreme Court instructed that “[s]o long as employees are speaking as citizens about matters of public concern, they must face only those speech restrictions that are necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively.”[10]  However, lower courts have interpreted this requirement to mean that an employee’s interest in commenting upon matters of public concern must “outweigh” his or her employer’s interest in promoting an efficient and effective workplace, meaning that this final factor often derails otherwise-valid First Amendment claims as well.[11]  If the employee can satisfy all three of these requirements, however, then disciplining the employee for speaking out violates the employee’s rights under the First Amendment.

Satisfying each of these three requirements is undeniably difficult— especially for first responders who require the public’s complete trust that they will discharge their duties fully and impartially without regard to factors like a person’s race, gender, or sexual orientation.  (As former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani celebrated during his speech at the Republican National Convention on Monday, for example: “When the[ police] come to save your life, they don’t ask if you are black or white, they just come to save you!”)  Accordingly, public employees often do not enjoy quite the level of First Amendment freedom that many expect or hope to see.  Of note, however, the limited First Amendment protections afforded to public employees stand in stark contrast to those held by private employees, who enjoy no First Amendment protections with regard to their employment at all.

Of course, the First Amendment also is not the only source of protection for free speech.  Additional protections can be and often are conferred upon public employees by federal law, state law, union agreements, or by contract.  For example, pursuant to Tennessee’s Public Employee Political Freedom Act (PEPFA): “it is unlawful for any public employer to discipline, threaten to discipline or otherwise discriminate against an employee because such employee exercised that employee’s right to communicate with an elected public official.”[12]  Taking disciplinary action against a public employee who exercises his or her right to communicate with a public official under PEPFA can also result in severe consequences to a government employer, including “treble damages plus reasonable attorney fees.”[13]  Thus, the First Amendment functions as only a protective floor upon which additional free speech protections can be – and should be – built higher.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 143-44 (1983) (quoting  McAuliffe v. Mayor of New Bedford, 155 Mass. 216, 220, 29 N.E. 517, 517 (1892), citing Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485, 72 S.Ct. 380, 96 L.Ed. 517 (1952); Garner v. Board of Public Works, 341 U.S. 716, 71 S.Ct. 909, 95 L.Ed. 1317 (1951); United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 67 S.Ct. 556, 91 L.Ed. 754 (1947); United States v. Wurzbach, 280 U.S. 396, 50 S.Ct. 167, 74 L.Ed. 508 (1930); Ex parte Curtis, 106 U.S. 371, 1 S.Ct. 381, 27 L.Ed. 232 (1882).

[2] 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968).

[3] 547 U.S. 410, 126 S. Ct. 1951, 164 L. Ed. 2d 689 (2006).

[4] See Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 143, 103 S.Ct. 1684, 75 L.Ed.2d 708 (1983); Hughes v. Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 542 F.3d 169, 180 (6th Cir. 2008).

[5] Rodgers v. Banks, 344 F.3d 587, 596 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Connick, 461 U.S. at 146.).

[6] See, e.g., Pickering, 391 U.S. at 571 (protecting commentary on use of tax dollars and school spending).

[7] Rodgers, 344 F.3d at 596 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).

[8] Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 421 (2006).

[9] Hughes v. Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 542 F.3d 169, 180 (6th Cir. 2008).

[10] Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 419 (2006).

[11] See, e.g., Housey v. Macomb Cty., 534 F. App’x 316, 321 (6th Cir. 2013).

[12] Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-50-603(a).

[13] Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-50-603(b).