Law & Courts

Table: The First Amendment and Government Workers

October 18, 2005 2 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in Garcetti v. Ceballos, a case that will further define when speech by a public employee, such as a teacher, is protected by the First Amendment. the court has made other key decisions in this area, including in the Pickering and Connick cases, considered the most important rulings on the subject.

Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205 (1968)

The court ruled in favor of an Illinois teacher, Marvin L. Pickering, who was dis-missed after a newspaper published his letter critical of the school board over its handling of proposals to raise revenue. The court established a test for determining whether an employment action involving a public employee’s speech violates the First Amendment. The opinion said a court must balance “the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting on matters of public concern” with the “interest of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”

Mount Healthy City School District v. Doyle (1977)

A Ohio school board declined to renew the contract of an untenured teacher after he made an obscene gesture to a female student and phoned in to a radio station to reveal the content of a principal’s memorandum about a teacher dress code. The Supreme Court held that the teacher’s conduct was protected by the First Amendment and that it was the motivating factor in the board’s nonrenewal decision. But it declined to reinstate him, sending the case back to lower courts to determine whether the board would have reached the same decision based on the teacher’s entire performance record. A federal appeals court later ruled that he would not have been renewed even if he had not called the radio station.

Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District (1979)

The court held that a Mississippi teacher’s private expression of concern to her principal about a desegregation plan was protected by the First Amendment. The district had not renewed the teacher’s contract and attempted to justify the action because the teacher had made “petty and unreasonable demands” in her meetings with the principal.

Connick v. Myers (1983)

An assistant district attorney in New Orleans was upset about her proposed transfer within the office, and she circulated a questionnaire to her colleagues about trans-fer policies, office morale, their level of confidence in supervisors, and other matters. The district attorney fired her, citing her refusal to accept her transfer and the circulation of the questionnaire, which he viewed as an act of insubordination. The Supreme Court held that the dismissal did not violate the First Amendment because the employee’s speech was about a matter of personal interest, not public concern.

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SOURCE: Education Week
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as The First Amendment and Government Workers

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