Brief Fact Summary. A District Attorney’s dismissal for circulating a questionnaire in protest of her proposed transfer was upheld by the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) even though one question in her survey touched upon “public concern.” Since there was such a limited “public concern” element here, the Supreme Court found that her boss’ decision to terminate her was permissible under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution).
Synopsis of Rule of Law. When employee expression cannot be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community, government officials should enjoy wide latitude in managing their offices, without intrusive oversight by the judiciary in the name of the First Amendment of the Constitution. When a public employee speaks not as a citizen upon matters of public concern, but instead as an employee upon matters only of personal interest, absent the most unusual circumstances, a federal court is not the appropriate forum to review the personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction to that employee’s behavior.
Issue. Whether Respondent’s termination was a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution?
Whether the questionnaire constituted a matter of public concern?
Held. No. Judgment of the lower court reversed. Respondent’s questionnaire touched upon matters of public concern only in a limited sense. The limited First Amendment interested involved here does not require Petitioner to tolerate action which he believes would disrupt the office, undermine his authority and destroy close working relationship. Therefore, Respondent’s termination was not a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Yes, but to a limited extent. Whether an employee’s speech constitutes a matter of public concern must be determined by the content, form and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record. In this case, with but one exception, the Respondent’s questions do not fall under the “public concern” rubric. The questionnaire, if released to the public would impart no information at all other than that one employee is dissatisfied with the status quo. However, the questionnaire does touch on one matter of public concern in question 11 where Respondent asks whether the public employees ever feel “pressured” to work on political campaigns. Because one of the questions touches on a matter of public concern, the Supreme Court of the United States must determine whether Petitioner was justified in terminating her employment. The state’s burden in justifying a particular discharge varies depending on the nature of the employee’s expression. There must be a full consideration of the
government’s interest in the effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities to the public. Petitioner’s judgment was that Respondent’s questionnaire was an act of insubordination, which interfered with working relationships. When employee speech concerning office policy arises from an employment dispute concerning the very application of that policy to the speaker, additional weight must be given to the supervisor’s view that the employee has threatened the authority of the employer to run the office. Therefore, he was justified in his dismissal of the Respondent.
Dissent. The questions in the questionnaire are of public import in evaluating the performance of the District Attorney as an elected official. The majority’s decision will deter public employees from making critical statements about the manner in which government agencies are operated for fear that doing so will provoke their dismissal. Such information is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Discussion. This case illustrates that even though speech may be of public concern, it may still not be fully protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.