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April 1, 2011

Free speech limitations on public employees

Free speech limitations on public employees
Wasson v Sonoma Co. Jr. Coll., 204 F.3d 659

A public employee may claim that he or she was disciplined as a result of his or her exercising his or her constitutionally protected right of free speech.

This was Sonoma County Junior College instructor Sylvia J. Wasson’s argument following her termination from her position. The reason for her dismissal: the College Board decided that she was the anonymous writer of six defamatory letters and flyers that vilified the college president, Robert Agrella.

Wasson sued, claiming the college’s action violated her First Amendment rights. Wasson, however, had denied writing the five letters and the flyer she claimed was the reason underlying her termination. Her denial proved fatal to her wrongful termination in retaliation for exercising her right to free speech argument.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, said that a free speech claim depends on speech.... In what may be a variation of Catch 22, the court said that because Wasson denied writing the letters or otherwise being involved in the affair, she had no basis for claiming her right to free speech had been violated.

In the words of the court, “[w]e conclude that the plaintiff fails to state a First Amendment claim in these circumstances because she cannot show the alleged wrongful conduct was in retaliation for any exercise of her free speech rights.”

Wasson also presented an alternative argument: she was defending the First Amendment free speech rights of the actual writer of the offending letters and flyer.

The court dismissed this theory as well. The Circuit Court ruled that Wasson lacked standing because she did not show that she had any relationship to, or with, the alleged anonymous writer, the second prong of the three-prong test set out in Powers v Ohio, 499 US 400.

In order to prevail on the basis of a defending the free speech of others argument, the individual must show that he or she (1) actually suffered an injury in fact, (2) had a close relation to the third party, and (3) there was some hindrance to the third party’s ability to protect his or her own interests.

Further, the courts typically distinguish between a public employee’s exercising his or her right to free speech concerning a matter of public interest in contrast to speech that essentially involves the individual’s personal interests. Pickering v Board of Education, 391 US 563, sets out the tests applied by the courts in such cases.

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