Constitutionally protected speech of public officers and employees
McKinley v Kaplan, CA11, 262 F. 3d 1146
The general rule is that a public employee cannot be disciplined simply for exercising his or her constitutional right to free speech concerning matters of public interest. Where the employee speaks out on matters of public concern, the government bears the burden of justifying any adverse employment action it might take against the individual.
A public employee's speech concerning a private or personal interest, however, is a different matter. The public employer is not required to justify disciplinary action taken in response to an employee's speech regarding personal matters, such as a change in the employee's duties or work location.
Further, in Pickering v Board of Education, 391 US 563, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a public employee's right to freedom of speech is not absolute because “the State has interests as an employer in regulating the speech of its employees that differ significantly from those it possesses in connection with regulation of the speech of the citizenry in general.”
The McKinley case raises another element to consider concerning the right of a public employer to regulate the speech of its employee -- the employer's expectations with respect to a policy-maker's speech concerning matters of public interest related to the individual's work.
Margaret McKinley, a volunteer and unpaid member of the Miami-Dade County Film, Print, and Broadcast Advisory Board,* was removed from her position because, said the County, she had expressed and supported a position that was “inappropriate and insulting to the community” represented by the sponsor of her appointment as well as being inconsistent with County policy.
According to the decision, the County had adopted a policy “prohibiting contracts between the County and any firms doing business either directly or indirectly with Cuba.” After determining that an organization planning an Entertainment Conference “was doing business with Cuba by inviting Cuban artists to perform,” the County voted against providing any public monies to support the event.
McKinley disagreed with this decision and made a statement at a public meeting held by the Miami Beach Fashion, Film, Television and Recording Committee to the effect that losing the Conference would hurt Miami's entertainment industry and that the County's action improperly reflected only the views of the Cuban-American community. She was quoted in the Miami Herald as follows: "While we respect and appreciate the concerns of Cuban-Americans in the exile community, allowing a few people's political standpoint to dictate the potential economic growth of the area is not for the benefit of the community as a whole."
McKinley sued the County after she was dismissed from her position, contending that the county violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights because she was fired as a result of the public statement she made concerning a County policy with which she disagreed.
A federal district court judge dismissed McKinley's complaint, holding that the First Amendment did not provide her with any right to continued government employment. The court's rationale: McKinley's role on the Film Board involved public contact and providing input into County policy decisions and she failed to properly represent the views and policies of the County to the public. The Circuit Court affirmed the ruling, pointing out that the Pickering decision sets out a four prong test for determining if an employee's protected speech rights have been violated by a public employer's action:
1. Did the speech involve a matter of public concern?
2. If so, does the government's interest in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees out weight the employee's interest in protected speech?
3. If so, did the employee's speech play a substantial part in the government's decision to discharge the employee? and, finally,
4. If the speech was a substantial motivating factor in the employer's decision, has the government shown by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have discharged the employee regardless of the protected conduct?
The parties agreed that the only issue to be addressed in this instance was “the balancing prong of the Pickering test” -- weighing the respective interests of the County and McKinley. According to the court:
1. On McKinley's side of the scale is her interest in voicing her opinion on a controversial county resolution.
2. On the County side is its need to maintain loyalty, discipline, and good working relationships with those employees and board members they appoint and supervise.
The Circuit Court's conclusion: the balance tipped in favor of the County based on the proposition that “governments have a strong interest in staffing their offices with employees that they fully trust, particularly when the employees occupy advisory or policy-making roles.” Finding that McKinley was a “policy-maker,” based on the fact that her duties required her to serve in an advisory capacity with input on policy issues, the court concluded that this factor “gives the County a greater interest in removing her based on her speech.”
The Circuit Court then said that “[p]erhaps more important to our decision than [McKinley's] policy influence or public contact, however, is the fact that [McKinley] served as an appointed representative of the County ... and she failed to support [its] interests.” According to the ruling:
It was not [McKinley's] right to free speech that was affected by the County Commission's decision to remove her. Rather, it was her right to maintain an appointed position ... in light of her choice to publicly dissent from [the County's] clearly stated views and policies.
Whistle blowing involves another element that must be considered when determining if the employer's interest in limiting its employees' speech outweighs an employee's interest in free speech. For example, Section 75-b of the Civil Service Law, provides that a public employer “shall not dismiss or take other disciplinary or other adverse personnel action against a public employee regarding the employee's employment because the employee discloses to a governmental body information regarding a violation of law ... which violation creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety....” It also includes a provision, Section 75-b.4, that states that nothing in the Section “shall be deemed to ... prohibit any personnel action which otherwise would have been taken regardless of any disclosure of information.” [See, also, Labor Law 740].
Sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish the line between “free speech” and “whistle blowing.” For example, did the McDonald case [McDonald v City of Freeport [TX], 834 FSupp 921] concern the issue of “free speech,” or “whistle blowing” or, perhaps, both.
In McDonald the court considered allegations made by police officers that the City fired one police officer and forced another to retire after they spoke to the media about alleged police misconduct. Some might classify this type of activity “whistle blowing.” The federal district court, however, made its ruling based on “free speech” concerns, holding that such action violated the police officers' First Amendment rights.
In this instance, said the court, the employee's interest in revealing such matters of public concern outweighed the police department's interest in maintaining “an efficient police department.” According to the decision, only a concern for “national security” or similar situations would serve to limit an employee from revealing improper governmental practices to the public.
* The pay status of the individual has no bearing with respect to an individual's alleged terminated for an improper or unconstitutional reason. As the court indicated in Hyland v Wonder, 972 F.2d 1129, serving as a volunteer constitutes a government benefit or privilege and that “[r]etaliatory actions with less momentous consequences [than loss of employment], such as loss of a volunteer position, are equally egregious in the eyes of the Constitution because a person is being punished for engaging in protected speech.”