Tag Archives: public employees

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.

Rights Redefined for Public Emplyees

Topic: Free-Speech Rights of Public Employees

Essential Question: Q:Does the First Amendment protect an employee’s freedom of expression at a government workplace?

Before April 26th of 2016, public workers could be fired or demoted if their political views were known or thought to be known. However, the legality of the these actions changed on April 26th of 2016, when the Supreme Court came to a decision in the Heffernan vs. City of Paterson case. The court ruled in favor of Heffernan with Justice Stephen G. Breyer stating:  

“The government’s reason for demoting Heffernan is what counts here. When an employer demotes an employee out of desire to prevent the employee from engaging in political activity that the 1st Amendment protects, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action.”

What this statement means is that a public employee cannot be fired because they are seen participating in political activities outside of the workplace and/or if their political views are known. As Heffernan was demoted because his supervisor mistakenly assumed he was supporting an opposing candidate, this ruling in Heffernan vs. City of Paterson also forbids punishing an employee suspected association of a public employees’ political views. For example, if a public employee is suspected of having democratic views and or associating with that party, they cannot be fired on those suspected views alone.

Additionally, while public employees cannot be fired or demoted based on their political actions or views outside of the workplace, at work, public employees have restrictions on their free speech. Public employees cannot voice or express their political views at work because their actions at work are considered to be a part of the government, and the government cannot openly endorse one party or candidate. The only exception to this rule is if a public employee is voicing or expressing their “public concern” which is defined as speech involving a public issue that is important to the general public, and invokes a substantial amount of independent and continuing public attention. As written by the Congressional Research Service on page 30, the case of Pickering v. Board of Education ruled that the First Amendment “protects a public employee’s right, in certain circumstances, to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern: ” without fear of loss of government employment. The basis of the case of Pickering v. Board of Education was that the Supreme Court needed to balance “the interests of the teacher, 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.”  

 

Sources

“SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES.” Journal (American Water Works Association) 29.5 (1937): 699-713. Supreme Court of the United States. Web.

“Supreme Court Strengthens Free-speech Rights of Public Employees.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Midwest New Media, LLC  (513) 742-9150.

“Workplace Fairness.” Retaliation — Public Employees and First Amendment Rights.  n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.
. “Supreme Court Free Speech Ruling Bolsters Employee Rights.” Law360. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Expanded Rights for All Government Employees

Topic: Free speech rights of people employed by federal, state, and local government.

 

Essential Question: Should employers be able to fire or demote employees because of their political views?

 

There are around 22 million people that work for federal, state, and local government. All of them have limited 1st amendment rights. This focuses on freedom of speech. Recently there has been a breakthrough in the move towards equal protection under the 1st amendment for employees of government. In the Washington Post they explain the few ways that employees are protected. They say, “1. the speech is on a matter of public concern 2. the speech is not said by the employee as part of the employee’s job duties, Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), and 3. the damage caused by the speech to the efficiency of the government agency’s operation does not outweigh the value of the speech to the employee and the public (the so-called Pickering balance). Connick v. Myers (1983) (p. 567).”       

In an article in the LA Times, the writer David G. Savage, explained the Supreme Court’s decision, “the Supreme Court has strengthened the rights of the nation’s 22 million public employees to protect them against being demoted or fired for supporting the wrong political candidate in the eyes of their supervisors.” This was an important decision that gives more protection to the employees. One of the more notable cases on this subject was Heffernan vs. City of Paterson. In this case a police detective was demoted because he was seen carrying a sign that opposed the mayor. The police chief strongly supported the current mayor. What happened was that the detective was delivering the sign to his mother. The lawsuit was filed in 2005 and finally reached the Supreme court in 2016. In an article from the New Yorker they talk about the decisions that were made in court. The article says, “The trial judge ruled that because Heffernan didn’t mean to get involved in the campaign, he hadn’t exercised any First amendment right, so he couldn’t bring a First Amendment claim.” Eventually the case made its way to the Supreme Court and the court ended up ruling in favor of Heffernan. My personal stance would be that employers should not be able to fire employees just because of their political beliefs whether they make them public or not.