A Free Speech Tale of Two County Clerk Refusals

20 Pages Posted: 11 May 2017 Last revised: 11 Jan 2018

Date Written: May 10, 2017


The ever-expanding Free Speech Clause has made possible claims that would have been unthinkable until recently. This symposium Essay examines the compelled speech claims of two hypothetical county clerks who believe that marriage should be limited to unions between one man and one woman, and who argue that forcing them to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples compels them speak in favor of same-sex marriage in violation of the Free Speech Clause.

When a government employee such as a county clerk speaks, she may not be speaking as just a private individual. She may also be speaking as the government. This governmental component affects each side of the speech versus equality analysis. First, the Free Speech Clause interests in speech are weaker (sometimes to the point of extinguishment) when the speech is not purely private. Second, to the extent the government employee’s conduct is the government’s, then it amounts to state action, and the Equal Protection Clause is triggered.

Part I addresses the free speech claims of a county clerk who is terminated after she informs a same-sex couple that by reason of her beliefs, she cannot grant them a marriage license. The outcome here is straightforward: she loses. Because her refusal will be treated as the government’s own, her individual free speech interests are at their lowest while the government’s equal protection interests are at their highest. Part II addresses the free speech claims of a clerk who has found a coworker willing to cover for her, but her supervisor declines to accommodate her and instead fires her for refusing to do her job. The analysis here is more complicated, as it raises questions about expressive conduct, official duties, and expressive harms.

Keywords: public employee, government employee, Garcetti, speech, religion, first amendment, free exercise, establishment, equal protection, Kim Davis, exemptions, religious refusals, same-sex marriage, marriage licenses

Suggested Citation

Corbin, Caroline Mala, A Free Speech Tale of Two County Clerk Refusals (May 10, 2017). Ohio State Law Journal, Vol. 78, p. 819 (2018), University of Miami Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-18, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2965773

Caroline Mala Corbin (Contact Author)

University of Miami School of Law ( email )

1311 Miller Drive
Coral Gables, FL 33146
United States

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