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Quote of the Day - Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word; and not just comforting platitudes too mundane to need protection. - Colin Powell
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Can Government Workers Speak Out On Their Job?

You have First Amendment rights, and maybe from time to time you exercise them.  Certainly MIPTC does, most every day.  Do employees have First Amendment rights in the workplace?  Generally (in other words, be careful because there are caveats), the answer is no.  The question is not so clear, however, for public employees

Think about it.  Can the President say whatever he likes?  What about Congress?  How about the Supreme Court?  Now hold on a minute here, don't go sideways on me - you might be thinking, "well, they seem to say whatever they want with or without regard to the First Amendment," but I'm talking about expressing their personal opinions about their job, in their respective roles - not as private citizens.  In the context of these high-profile individuals, it's hard to imagine when we would let them be private citizens.  Even so, there are other government employees who want to speak out that aren't at these levels.

Take, for example, the case that was heard today by the Supreme Court.  It involved a Los Angeles prosecutor who alleges that he was demoted for recommending charges be dismissed against a defendant because a Sheriff lied in a search warrant.  He claims he had a First Amendment right to make that statement, despite having been told by a supervisor that he was wrong, and was essentially overruled. 

So far, Courts have been cautious in this area, limiting the First Amendment protection to speech on matters of "public concern," and generally only then in the government employees' role as a private citizen. 

In this instance, then, does that mean that the prosecutor has the right to perform his job to the dissatisfaction of his superiors?  Does the County of LA have the right to demote (or fire) the Deputy District Attorney for insubordination?  Is the Deputy DA bound to follow his supervisor's instructions without regard to his own opinions?

There's no easy answer, and even the newest Chief Justice struggled with these concepts.  In the oral arguments today, he asked the County's lawyer whether a professor at a public university could be fired based on a lecture's content. The lecture would certainly have taken place in the context of the professor's employment, Chief Justice Roberts continued, adding, ''That's what he's paid to do.''  Our newly-minted leader wondered aloud whether professor's speech was protected by the First Amendment.

When the County's lawyer waffled, Chief Justice Roberts said, ''I would have thought you might have argued that because the speech was paid for by the government, it was government speech and the First Amendment did not apply at all.''  The County's lawyer responded that the Deputy DA was challenging the decision of the supervisor, and his speech did not deserve protection. 

As you can see, there are some pretty sticky issues.  You can, however, exercise your First Amendment rights and put in your $0.02 worth in the comment box below.  Does the Constitution protect government workers from retaliation for speaking out on the job or in the course of their routine duties?

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Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by J. Craig Williams on Thursday, October 13, 2005 at 20:42 Comments Closed (0) |
 
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