Connick v. Myers

At issue in Connick v. Myers (1983) was whether a former assistant district attorney (ADA) who was dismissed for conducting a survey about morale in the district attorney’s office was speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern. The Supreme Court found that the survey’s content did not involve matters of public concern but rather employee grievances potentially disruptive to the district attorney’s office and thus was not protected under the First Amendment.

In light of Connick and related cases, it may be more difficult for public employees such as teachers to prove that they are speaking as private citizens on matters of public concern when they voice complaints about internal school operations. Among the questions that need to be resolved are where courts will draw the line between matters of public and private concern as well as whether an employee’s discussing a report with the media is a matter of private or public concern.

Facts of the Case

After the district attorney transferred the ADA, against her will, to another division in the office, she distributed the morale survey. As a result, the district attorney terminated the ADA’s employment for refusing to accept the new assignment. The district attorney also informed the ADA that distributing the survey was an act of insubordination. The ADAthen filed suit in a federal trial court in Louisiana, claiming that the district attorney infringed on her free speech rights under the First Amendment. The trial court and the Fifth Circuit entered judgments on behalf of the former ADA, but the Supreme Court reversed in favor of the district attorney.

The Court’s Ruling

In its analysis, the Supreme Court observed that Pickering v. Board of Education of Township School District 205, Will County, (1968) clearly established that public employees may speak as private citizens on matters of public concern. In Pickering, a teacher successfully challenged his dismissal for writing a letter to a local newspaper in which he voiced concerns over school policies. Even though the report contained some inaccuracies, the Court held that the teacher was speaking as a citizen on matters of public concern.

To this end, the Court acknowledged that the judiciary must balance the rights of public employees to speak on matters of public concern with the interests of public employers in maintaining the efficiency of service. In other words, the Court decided that employees may speak, provided their speech is on a matter of public concern and does not disrupt close working relationships.

As part of its rationale in the Connick case, the Supreme Court explained that judges must evaluate whether speech addresses a matter of public concern by looking at its content, form, and context. The Court noted that the issues in the questionnaire were, with one exception, not matters of public concern. As such, the Court found that when an employee’s speech does not relate to matters of political, social, or other public concerns, the judiciary must afford public officials wide latitude in managing their offices. The Court noted that because the questionnaire was designed to give the disgruntled employee ammunition to further challenge her supervisors, it was not a matter of public concern. Rather, the Court viewed the questionnaire as simply an extension of the former ADA’s grievance about her transfer.

The Supreme Court also indicated that time, place, and manner of distribution are also important. The Court was of the opinion that while the former ADA’s having prepared and distributed the questionnaire at the office was not a clear violation of any policies or procedures, it did provide her supervisor with reason to believe that her doing so was disrupting the office.

In its analysis, the Supreme Court conceded that one item in the ADA’s questionnaire dealt with a matter of public concern. This question asked whether other employees felt pressured to work for candidates not of their choosing in political campaigns. When the Court balanced the interests of the former ADA and her employer, it thought that although her distributing the questionnaire did not interfere with her ability to perform her duties, it did disrupt close working relationships. The Court thus ruled that the district attorney did not have to tolerate speech that had the potential to disrupt his office. The Court concluded that employee grievances on matters that are not of public concern are not entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court recently applied Connick in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). In Garcetti, the Court held that a deputy district attorney’s complaints about supervisors, in a dispute over a memorandum he wrote claiming that a police officer lied in his affidavit to secure a warrant, were not on matters of public concern in a disagreement. The Court was of the opinion that when public employees such as deputy district attorneys make statements pursuant to their official duties, they are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes. The Court rejected the argument that the outcome would deter whistleblowers from reporting misconduct, because they are protected by powerful state statutes.

J. Patrick Mahon

See also First Amendment; Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District; Mt. Healthy City Board of Education v. Doyle; Pickering v. Board of Education of Township School District 205, Will County; Teacher Rights

Legal Citations