A case potentially affecting legal protections for employees of public schools and other government entities when they speak in the course of doing their jobs had a rare rehearing before the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
The high court first heard arguments in Garcetti v. Ceballos (Case No. 04-473) on Oct. 12. (“Court Mulls Protection for Public-Employee Speech,” Oct. 19, 2005.)
The March 21 reargument stemmed fromJustice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s replacement of retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in January and suggests that the justices were closely divided on the case. Justice Alito may now hold the tie-breaking vote.
The case hinges on whether the First Amendment protects a Los Angeles County prosecutor who told his supervisors about alleged wrongdoing in a criminal investigation and was subsequently disciplined. Supreme Court precedents give free-speech protections to government workers who speak as citizens on issues of public concern, but it is unclear whether such protections apply to employees, including whistleblowers, who speak up in the workplace while performing their jobs.
“What about the case when the [employer’s] objection is to a manner of speech,” such as when the employee is “ham-handed,” Justice Alito asked the lawyer representing the employee.
Justice Alito joined Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in exploring whether speech protections would undermine the ability of government agencies to manage their employees. The case is expected to be decided by July.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week