Employees in the public sector do have a protected right to free speech; however, this right is limited. The First Amendment only protects government employees when they are speaking as a private citizen. If the government employee’s speech is part of their official job duties, they can be disciplined or fired for what they say.
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 workplace 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.
If a government employee was speaking as a private citizen, then it must be determined whether their speech was a matter of public concern. If they weren’t speaking on a matter of public concern, the First Amendment will not protect their speech. If they were speaking on a matter of public concern, the First Amendment might protect their speech.
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:
Unfortunately, it is not. Courts will always look at the context of your speech, taken as a whole. So your speech is unlikely to be protected if:
The government employer has an interest in professionally delivering public services and maintaining good professional relationships within an office and as their duty as a government employee. Courts evaluate the government employer’s interest by considering some important factors:
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 lawyer as soon as possible.
Last Modified: 02-22-2018 02:21 PM PSTLaw Library Disclaimer
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