Recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision Applies to Freedom of Speech by Public School Employees
On April 26, 2016, in Hefferman v. City of Paterson, the United States Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (the federal appeals court that covers Pennsylvania and several other states), and expanded the protection of public employees to advocate as a citizen on issues of public significance. Although the facts in Hefferman pertain to a campaign for political office, the Supreme Court’s holding will also apply more broadly to public employees’ freedom of speech on other matters of public importance.
This decision amplifies the need for school districts to proceed very cautiously, and within legal parameters, in addressing employee advocacy as a citizen on issues of public significance, including on issues relating to school district operations.
Hefferman involved a police officer in Paterson, New Jersey, who was the friend of a candidate challenging the incumbent mayor in a mayoral election. The police officer alleged in his lawsuit that he picked up a large campaign sign for his bedridden mother at the challenger’s campaign distribution point, and while doing so spoke with the candidate’s staff and campaign manager. Word of the police officer’s visit to the campaign site quickly reached his supervisor. Shortly afterward, the police officer was demoted from detective to patrol officer.
The police officer filed a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit in federal court. The police officer alleged that although he had visited the campaign site to obtain a sign for his bedridden mother, he believed the demotion was due to his supervisor’s mistaken belief that the police officer was actively supporting the challenger’s campaign – behavior the police officer enjoyed the constitutional right to pursue, had he actually engaged in such activity.
The trial court ruled against the police officer, holding that because he had not actually engaged in any protected conduct, his demotion was not due to his exercise of the constitutionally protected right. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed this ruling, and the police officer appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that although the supervisor demoted the police officer as a result of a factual mistake regarding a misperceived affiliation with a mayoral campaign, the supervisor intended to infringe upon the police officer’s First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court also determined that punishment of the police officer could conceivably bring constitutional harm to his colleagues, who having seen punitive action taken for engaging in protected speech, might consequently feel inhibited in expressing their own protected beliefs.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that although a factual mistake had motivated the employer’s retaliatory action, the police officer was entitled to proceed with his Section 1983 lawsuit against the City of Paterson.
It is important to note that nothing in Hefferman v. City of Paterson changes the Supreme Court’s prior holdings that public employees do not enjoy unfettered freedom of speech, and may be disciplined when they communicate either (a) as a public employee (rather than as a private citizen), or (b) on matters relating to a personal employment concern, rather than of a public concern. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006); Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983).
BOTTOM LINE: School district employees enjoy the right to speak publicly, as a citizen on matters of public importance – including issues pertaining to school district operations. In Hefferman v. City of Paterson, the Supreme Court made clear that when a public employer infringes upon a employee’s right to speak publicly as a citizen about matters of public importance, it does not matter whether such infringement was motivated by an accurate understanding of the facts. Hefferman is an important reminder for school districts to proceed with caution, and within legal constraints, in addressing speech by employees on issues of public concern.
We hope you find this issue of KKAL’s Education Law Watch helpful and informative. Please understand that the Law Watch is designed to provide information about current developments and required actions. It does not constitute legal advice, and school districts should consult a lawyer knowledgeable in this area of the law prior to taking specific actions on the issues addressed.
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