Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District

Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District (1979) addressed a teacher’s right to free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court found that public employees are permitted within specific boundaries to express their opinions, whether positive or negative, without fear of reprisal. The court identified the need to balance the teacher’s constitutional right on a matter of public concern and the interests of the employer. The constitutional freedom of speech is not lost to public employees when communicating privately with their employers, the Court decided.

Facts of the Case

In Givhan, a teacher went into the principal’s office and expressed her opinion regarding the school’s hiring practices and policies, which she believed were racially discriminatory. School officials claimed that during the meeting with the principal, the teacher made unreasonable and hostile demands. Subsequently, the superintendent gave the teacher a letter at the end of the school year identifying reasons for the nonrenewal of her contract.

The teacher sued the school board in a federal trial court in Mississippi, alleging that officials terminated her employment for exercising her First Amendment rights to free speech. After the trial court ordered the teacher’s reinstatement, the Fifth Circuit reversed in favor of the board. The court held that since the teacher’s expression was private, she was not protected under the First Amendment. In so doing, the court relied on Supreme Court precedent, which explained the circumstances under which the private expression of a public educational employee is not constitutionally protected, namely Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205, Will County (1968); Perry v. Sindermann (1972); and Mt. Healthy City Board of Education v. Doyle (1977).

The Court’s Ruling

On further review, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court, with one justice filing a concurring opinion, vacated in part and remanded for further consideration as to whether the board would have terminated the teacher’s employment regardless of her “demands.” The Court ruled that the First Amendment forbids abridgment of the freedom of speech but recognized that the content of public employees’ speech must be assessed to evaluate whether it in any way impedes the proper performance of daily duties or interferes with the regular operations of schools. Further, the Court identified that public employees who arrange to communicate in private rather than in public forums are not entitled to First Amendment protection. The Court added that the board did not prove that it would have acted as it did regardless of the opinions that the teacher expressed, but instead justified that it would have reached the same outcome.

The Fifth Circuit, on remand, sent the case back to a trial court for further consideration. The trial court found that since the teacher’s criticisms were expressed privately to her superior and were not delivered in a manner so as to threaten the school board’s efficiency, she had not lost her constitutional protection. Moreover, the court pointed out that the board’s alleged reasons for discharging the teacher were afterthoughts or pretextual. The Fifth Circuit then affirmed an order in favor of the teacher, awarding her attorney’s fees and back pay.

In disputes over the free speech rights of public school employees, Givhan fits into a set of cases wherein the Supreme Court has developed a three-part test to be considered in evaluating whether the matter is protected by the First Amendment. First, courts must review the manner, time, and place of delivery of an employee’s comments or speech. Second, courts must examine the comments or speech to assess whether they in any way impeded proper performance of classroom duties or interfered with the regular operation of the schools in general. Third, when employment termination is at stake, courts must determine whether the termination of an employee’s contract was due to the exercise of a protected constitutional right, such as speech, or whether the employee would have been dismissed regardless of his or her constitutionally protected actions.

Michael J. Jernigan

See also Due Process Rights: Teacher Dismissal; First Amendment: Speech in Schools; Mt. Healthy City Board of Education v. Doyle; Perry v. Sindermann; Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205, Will County; Teacher Rights

Legal Citations

  • Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District, 439 U.S. 410 (1979). 
  • Mt. Healthy City Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977). 
  • Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972). 
  • Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205, Will County, 391 U.S. 563 (1968).