Free Speech Restrictions on Public Employees

Does restrictions on free speech of public employees violate symbolic speech limits to the First Amendment?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Whether the first amendment applies to one as a worker, it depends on if one is a public employee or privately owned business employee. The first amendment only protects those who work for the federal government, for example, school teachers and police officers. This means that if a private employer is to demote or fire an employee for supporting a particular political view, the employee cannot sue in retaliation. However, as for public employees, they are protected under this right, however there are restrictions. Do these restrictions violate the freedom of speech rights of the public employees?

There are arguments that claim that these restrictions are infringing on the rights of public employees. Some workers claim that certain phrases they say are just part of their job. The Supreme Court rules whether what a public employee says based on if they said it as a citizen or for public concern. For example, there was a case Belyeu v. Coosa County Board of Education where a teacher brought up that the school should have a tribute for Black History Month during a PTA meeting. The teacher was then scolded for raising the idea up publicly, instead of to the principle privately. At the end of the year the teachers are expected to put in their resignations, as the positions changed year to year. Every teacher in the student aide section who sought employment at the school, except for Belyeu, were rehired. Belyeu filed an action against the Coosa County Board of Education, the members of the board in their official and individual capacities, and superintendent Hardman, alleging that, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (Title VII), the School System refused to rehire her because of her speech at the February PTA meeting and based on her gender. A lower court ruled that while the idea did relate to public concern, the school wanted to keep racial tensions from forming. The higher court overruled this because the case did not disrupt school nor did it racially divide the students (the context of her words were not going to either). In another case, a police officer was seen holding a campaign sign for a mayor. The police officer was seen holding the sign, which he was delivering to his bedridden mother. The false accusation of the police officer resulted in him receiving a demotion in order to prevent him from further voicing his views. The officer then decided to sue in retaliation for the supervisors false perceptions. The lower courts ruled that he could not sue because the supervisor was not infringing on his rights, because he had not practiced them in the first place. Higher courts then ruled and strengthened the free speech rules, arguing that an employee can sue in retaliation for engaging in protected political engagement. Public employees are prohibited from expressing matters that will potentially upset or sway others (politics/personal opinions) unless it is a matter of public concern, or are for the good of the community. Public employees may express their views as a citizen, only when they are not at work.

The answer is yes and no. While as a citizen we are all entitled to free speech and expression, at work we do not. The government has restrictions on all aspects of free speech. The idea is not to just limit what people can say, and be able to fire or demote them if they do. Putting restrictions on what people say at work is to keep people, especially school students, from being swayed from one political campaigner or party. It is for keeping certain topics from segregating or upsetting people. It is just like students at school, while we are able to say as we please, we have restrictions on what we can say to keep foulness and others from getting upset by hate speech or swear words. As a citizen, we are able to freely practice free speech and express ourselves as we wish. Public employees are still free to say as they wish, just more censored than they would if they were on their own walking down the street, or in their own home. While restrictions do technically violate free speech, it also does not because there needs to be guidelines to keep work and schools working together and efficiently.


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