Speech Rights of Public Employees: Contextualizing Garcetti

Posted on Categories First Amendment, Labor & Employment Law, Legal Scholarship

Since its recognition of the right of public employees to speak on matters of public concern in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968), the Supreme Court has proven less than generous in protecting that right.  Of particular importance, the Supreme Court held in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), that if employees speak pursuant to their official work duties, they are not speaking as “citizens,” and their speech enjoys no First Amendment protection.  The holding thus substantially restricts constitutional safeguards for government whistleblowers.

Paul Secunda helpfully places Garcetti‘s formalism in a broader jurisprudential context in a new paper on SSRN, “Neoformalism and the Reemergence of the Rights/Privilege Distinction in Public Employment Law.”  

More specifically, he connects Garcetti and similar public employment cases to the “unconsitutional conditions” cases outside the employment setting, in which the Court has embraced a distinction between government subsidies and penalties.  As to subsidy programs, the Court will permit the government to act in ways that burden a constitutionally protected actitivity as long as there remain opportunities to engage in the activity.  In both lines of cases, Paul accuses the Court of ignoring the practical consequences of its decisions.  He writes, “The solution to this cold and insensitive neoformalist approach is to argue for more standards and balancing of interests than bright-line rules.”  (47)

The paper will appear in the San Diego Law Review.  Here is the abstract:

The First Amendment speech rights of public employees, which have traditionally enjoyed protection under the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions, have suddenly diminished in recent years. At one time developed to shut the door on the infamous privilege/rights distinction, a new version of the unconstitutional conditions doctrine has been increasingly used to rob public employees of their constitutional rights.

Three interrelated developments explain this state of affairs. First, a jurisprudential school of thought – the “subsidy school” – has significantly undermined the vitality of the unconstitutional conditions doctrine through its largely successful sparring with an alternative school of thought, the “penalty school.” Second, although initially developed in the government as sovereign context, this subsidy approach to the unconstitutional conditions doctrine has now infiltrated the government as employer context and eviscerated large parts of the holding in Pickering v. Bd. of Education. Third, and most significantly, the subsidy approach in the government as employer context has morphed into the government speech doctrine, through which the government employer claims the speech of its employees as its own and regulates it freely. It is this neoformalism of the subsidy school that explains the reemergence of the privilege-right distinction in public employment law.

This article argues for the restoration of Pickering, its constitutional balancing standard, and the penalty version of the unconstitutional conditions doctrine. Only when government actions that practically truncate the rights of public employees are not tolerated, will public employees be able again to speak without fear of retribution, assume the role of the vanguard of the citizenry, and protect fellow citizens from government fraud, waste, and abuse.

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