Governmental Employees: Limitations on Your Rights to the Freedom of Speech
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Do I Forfeit my First Amendment Rights by Working for the Government?
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides every American citizen the fundamental right to engage in free speech without being prosecuted by the government.
Just as citizens have an important interest in speaking freely, the government has a strong interest in fulfilling its duties to the public in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Since disciplinary action by an employer may be justified when effectiveness and efficiency are seriously threatened, the government may be justified in bringing a disciplinary action against an employee whose exercise of their free speech right severely impacts the government's ability to effectively and efficiently fulfill its duties.
So, employees in the public sector do have a protected right to free speech; however, this right is limited.
In What Way Is My Speech Limited as a Government Employee?
If you are a governmental employee, your speech may be protected only if it:
- Lies within the general protection of the First Amendment, and
- Is upon a matter of public concern.
What Is a Matter of Public Concern?
As always, judicial jurisdictions vary on what is deemed a matter of public concern. Generally speaking, the speech must be of great political or social relevance to the community. Jurisdictions tend to agree that the following should be protected whenever possible:
- Debate on public issues, regardless of its inappropriate or controversial nature;
- Unpopular or offensive ideological views expressed in the context of political demonstrations;
- Numerous forms of artistic expression, even on matters otherwise considered to be insignificant or profane; and
- The proper allocation of governmental resources.
Is All Speech on Matters of Public Concern Protected?
Unfortunately, it is not. Courts will always look at the context of your speech, taken as a whole. Thus, your speech is unlikely to be protected if:
- The purpose of your speech was for personal satisfaction or to redress a personal grievance, or
- If the burden the speech places on the government in fulfilling its responsibilities to the public greatly outweighs the benefit the speech was intended to provide.
Where Does That Leave Me?
If you work in the public sector and feel you were unjustly disciplined by your employer or wrongfully terminated after exercising your right to the freedom of speech, it is in your best interest to contact an employment attorney as soon as possible.
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Last Modified: 06-25-2014 05:51 PM PDT
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