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Neoformalism and the Reemergence of the Rights/Privilege Distinction in Public Employment Law


Paul M. Secunda


Marquette University - Law School

September 3, 2010

San Diego Law Review, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2011
Marquette Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 10-34

Abstract:     
The First Amendment speech rights of public employees, which have traditionally enjoyed protection under the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions, have suddenly diminished in recent years. At one time developed to shut the door on the infamous privilege/rights distinction, a new version of the unconstitutional conditions doctrine has been increasingly used to rob public employees of their constitutional rights.

Three interrelated developments explain this state of affairs. First, a jurisprudential school of thought – the “subsidy school” – has significantly undermined the vitality of the unconstitutional conditions doctrine through its largely successful sparring with an alternative school of thought, the “penalty school.” Second, although initially developed in the government as sovereign context, this subsidy approach to the unconstitutional conditions doctrine has now infiltrated the government as employer context and eviscerated large parts of the holding in Pickering v. Bd. of Education. Third, and most significantly, the subsidy approach in the government as employer context has morphed into the government speech doctrine, through which the government employer claims the speech of its employees as its own and regulates it freely. It is this neoformalism of the subsidy school that explains the reemergence of the privilege-right distinction in public employment law.

This article argues for the restoration of Pickering, its constitutional balancing standard, and the penalty version of the unconstitutional conditions doctrine. Only when government actions that practically truncate the rights of public employees are not tolerated, will public employees be able again to speak without fear of retribution, assume the role of the vanguard of the citizenry, and protect fellow citizens from government fraud, waste, and abuse.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 49

Keywords: public employment, free speech, neoformalism, unconstitutional conditions, government speech doctrine, subsidy/penalty debate

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Date posted: August 29, 2010 ; Last revised: October 5, 2010

Suggested Citation

Secunda, Paul M., Neoformalism and the Reemergence of the Rights/Privilege Distinction in Public Employment Law (September 3, 2010). San Diego Law Review, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2011; Marquette Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 10-34. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1666580 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1666580

Contact Information

Paul M. Secunda (Contact Author)
Marquette University - Law School ( email )
Eckstein Hall
P.O. Box 1881
Milwaukee, WI 53201
United States
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