The Special Value of Public Employee Speech
45 Pages Posted: 5 May 2016
Date Written: May 4, 2016
In this article, I use the 2014 decision of Lane v. Franks as a jumping off point to revisit the rule of Garcetti v. Ceballos, that speech conducted pursuant to one’s public employment is unprotected by the First Amendment. I explain that Garcetti is emblematic of the Supreme Court’s failure to dig beneath the surface of its own long-standing acknowledgment that public employee speech holds special value. If one tunnels into that subterrane, one finds that the value of public employee speech is a function not just of content, but of form. Public employees play a special role under the First Amendment by virtue of their privileged access both to information and to communication channels for conveying it. The special communication channels to which employees have access – including internal channels – can be uniquely effective in supporting accountability and the rule of law, and thus in fulfilling core free speech values.
I consider how a fuller conception of special value – as well as a more sharply defined government interest in limiting employee speech – ought to impact the doctrine of public employee speech. I propose that, where work product speech can confidently be identified, courts should consider whether employees were disciplined based on a genuine, not pretextual assessment of work product quality. Crucially, in cases where employees were hired to render independent professional judgments, disappointment with those judgments, not because they reflect low quality, but because they are politically or personally inconvenient for employers, should not be deemed quality-based assessments. Only disciplinary actions based on quality-based assessments should be exempt from further scrutiny. As a second-best, but perhaps more realistic near-term alternative, I also consider means to limit Garcetti’s reach.
Keywords: first amendment, free speech, public employees, public employee speech
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