NYC Employment, Civil Rights and Criminal Defense Law Blog

Monday, June 18, 2012

Free Speech Rights for Public Employees?

The United States Supreme Court has made it very difficult for public employees to get relief when they speak out about their jobs and are then retaliated against because of what they said.  In the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), the Court held that to have an actionable claim, the employee must be able to show not just that their speech involved a matter of public concern, but also that their speech was not made pursuant to their official job duties.  While public employees often speak out on matters of public concern, they typically do so with respect to their official job duties – matters like how they have been directed or misdirected to perform their jobs in their honest belief that they will accomplish positive change by voicing their concerns.  Unfortunately, while common sense may make one think such speech should be protected; it often is not. 


Recently, we had another illustration of this principle in the case of Matthews v. City of New York, 12 CV 1354 (S.D.N.Y. 2012).  In Matthews, a police officer claimed that commanders in his precinct used a quota system that required officers to make a minimum numbers of arrests, issue a minimum number of summonses and engage in a minimum number of stop-and-frisks - conduct he alleged resulted in wrongful police action.  The officer claimed that soon after he complained about this practice, his supervisors retaliated against him by, among other things, harassing him with undesirable job assignments, issuing him negative performance evaluations, and denying him overtime.  He brought suit, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights. 


The Court dismissed the officer’s suit, following the Supreme Court’s guidance in Garcetti, finding that his speech was “pursuant to his job duties” or “employee speech” and not protected “private citizen speech”. 


The lesson here is that public employees must be careful when speaking out about their jobs, even when they are well motivated and their concerns are legitimate because, if retaliation follows, they may find themselves without an effective avenue of relief. 


Traub & Traub, P.C., a law firm located in New York City, New York, has as its mission the advancement and protection of the rights of the individual in cases involving employment, civil rights, criminal defense and general litigation. The firm handles cases throughout the five boroughs of NYC, as well as Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess and Rockland Counties. In addition to its work in New York, the firm has extensive knowledge and experience in the representation of federal employees in all criminal and employment-related matters and represents federal employees throughout the Northeastern United States.

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