Public employees and the First Amendment right to free speech

Public employees and the First Amendment right to free speech
Thomas v City of Blanchard, 548 F.3d 1317

In considering a public employee’s claim that his or her First Amendment right to free speech has been compromised by his or her public employer, courts distinguish between the employee’s speech in terms of the vindication of a personal interest and the vindication of a public interest.

Another arena in which an employee may contend that his or her employer’s actions are violative of the employee’s free speech are tested in terms of whether the speech concerned the employee’s official duties or a public interest.

The latter was the issue in the Thomas case: Was Thomas’s report to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) made pursuant to his professional duties and therefore outside the scope of First Amendment protections within the meaning of Garcetti v Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, or was his speech a matter of public interest and thus protected by the First Amendment?

Ira Thomas was fired from his job as building code inspector for the City of Blanchard, Oklahoma, after he discovered a signed and completed certificate of occupancy for a home constructed by a local builder — who was also the mayor — in the City Clerk’s office although Thomas had neither made the final inspection of the home nor approved issuance of the certificate.

In the words of the Tenth Circuit, “Suspecting illegality, Mr. Thomas responded forcefully (and maybe even inappropriately; that is a disputed issue) by storming into a meeting to denounce the certificate, shouting at the City Clerk, threatening to report the matter to the OSBI and eventually following through on the threat.”

Subsequently terminated from his position, Thomas sued the City and various city officials, including the mayor, claiming his discharge was in retaliation for his exercising his right to free speech — primarily, his reporting the matter to the OSBI — and therefore in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

The Circuit Court decided that Thomas’s search was not made pursuant to his professional duties and thus was constitutionally protected. Citing its decision in Casey v. West Las Vegas Independent School District, 473 F.3d 1323, the court concluded that ala Casey, "Thomas was not satisfied that the city’s officials would report the fraud to the authorities, so he 'took his grievance elsewhere' — that is, to the OSBI.”

The court then considered a number of additional relevant issues including (1) whether the government’s interest outweighed the employee’s free speech rights and (2) whether the speech was a motivating factor in the discharge.

As to whether Thomas’s speech was a matter of public concern, the Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that although this issue was raised for the first time in this appeal, speech about possible illegality or pressure by the mayor would count as a matter of public concern.

Addressing whether city’s interest as employer in promoting the efficiency of the services it performs outweighs the employee’s interest in his speech, the court said that for the purposes of this test, the question is not whether the plaintiff’s speech was accompanied by disruptive behavior or made in a disruptive manner, but whether the government’s legitimate interests provide a sufficient justification for controlling Thomas’s message.

The decision also addresses other significant issues concerning the rights and limitations concerning the exercise of “free speech” by a public employee.

The full text of the decision is posted on the Internet at: