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Free Speech in the Workplace - the First Amendment Revisited

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Essay title: Free Speech in the Workplace - the First Amendment Revisited




By: Karen Sutherland

A. Background

I spend a substantial amount of my practice on employment law issues, including workplace

training on sexual harassment, discrimination and workplace violence. One question that

frequently comes up during the training sessions sounds something like this: "What about my

right of free speech? The short answer to this question is "Yes, you can be disciplined or even

fired for saying something sexist or racist, and in many cases for insubordination too."

The question illustrates the huge gap between what is allowed under the First Amendment in the

context of broad public discourse and the anti-discrimination and other laws and rules applicable

in the workplace. It also highlights the differences between public and private sector


B. Public Employees Freedom of Speech/First Amendment Rights

1. Public Concerns v. Effective and Efficient Public Service.

Public employees have a constitutionally protected interest in freedom of speech. Dicomes v.

State, 113 Wn.2d 612, 625, 782, P.2d 1002 (1989), citing Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593,

597-98, 33 L. Ed. 2d 570, 92 S. Ct. 2694 (1972) and Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S.

563, 574, 20 L. Ed. 2d 811, 88 S. Ct. 1731 (1968). Constitutionally-protected speech is not an

absolute in the workplace for public employees, however. In Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138,

148 n.7, 75 L. Ed. 2d 708, 103 S. Ct. 1684 (1983), the Supreme Court outlined a two-step test

for determining the scope of First Amendment rights of public employees, which has been

adopted by the Washington State Supreme Court.

First, the court must determine whether the speech involves a matter of public

concern. Connick, at 147-48. Second, the court must balance the interest of the

employee as a citizen commenting on matters of public concern with the interest

of the State as employer in providing effective and efficient public service.

Connick, at 150.

Dicomes, 113 Wn.2d at 625.

The types of matters that have been held to be of personal interest and therefore not protected by

the First Amendment include disputes over internal office affairs or over pay, hours or conditions

of employment. Id.


2. Interference or Disruption of the Public Enterprise.

In addition to examining the content of the employee's speech, the court must examine its

context. Dicomes, 113 Wn.2d at 625, citing Connick, at 152-53; Givhan v. Western Line

Consolidated School District, 439 U.S. 410, 415 n.4, 58 L. Ed. 2d 619, 99 S. Ct. 693 (1979). In

this context, the focus is on the effective functioning of the public enterprise and the extent to

which the employee's speech interferes with or impedes those operations. Id.

In this context, it is important to examine "the extent of authority and public

accountability the employee's role entails." Rankin, at 390. If the "employee

serves no confidential, policymaking, or public contact role, the danger to the

agency's successful functioning from that employee's private speech is minimal."

Rankin, at 390-91. Thus, there are limits on the extent to which an employee in a

sensitive or policy-making position may freely criticize superiors and the policies


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