January 5, 2011

Free speech does not protect employee making a racist statement

Free speech does not protect employee making a racist statementPereira v Commissioner of Social Services (SJC-08218), the Supreme Judicial Court, Mass., 432 Mass. 251

The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech did not shield a twelve-year public employee from dismissal for telling a racist joke at a political gathering.

Linda M. Pereira, a social worker, was terminated after making remarks that she, herself, described as a stupid, racist, and unthinking joke.

While citing a line of cases that included Pickering v Board of Education, 31 U.S. 563, and Connick v Meyers, 461 U.S. 138, 1983, the Massachusetts high court said that although a public employee’s speech may be entitled to constitutional protection if the employee speaks out on a matter of public concern, and his or her interests as a citizen are not outweighed by the state’s interest in performing a public service, Pereira’s speech was not so protected.

Why not? Because, the court explained, while Pereira spoke at a political event, she conceded that her off-the-cuff ‘joke’ was not intended to convey any message and therefore did not address any matter of public concern. Further, the court noted that although the political affair was not a public gathering, Pereira’s remark was widely reported in the press.

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