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Some public employee speech is protected but not speech that’s part of the job

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Some government employees mistakenly believe an employer can’t punish anything they say because the U.S. Constitution gives them the right to free speech.

They’re forgetting that free speech has limits. For example, their speech is protected only if it touches on matters of public importance. And it is not protected if the speech occurs as part of their jobs.

Recent case: Tristan Bonn worked as a government auditor in charge of reviewing citizens’ complaints against police officers and firefighters.

Bonn prepared a report on the relationship between traffic stops, intense policing in minority communities and diversity on the police force. Bonn published the report and spoke about it to the press.

His report was critical of the police department and seemed to imply that few minority applicants wanted to work for the department because they had had negative interactions with current members of the police force.

For example, the report concluded that intense policing in minority communities resulted in many minor criminal charges. In turn, citizens who had been arrested and prosecuted were ineligible to work for the police force. A senior police official disagreed with the report and fired Bonn.

Bonn sued, alleging the report was an exercise in free speech.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that Bonn spoke as part of the job, not as a citizen. Therefore, his free speech rights didn’t protect him from discharge. (Bonn v. City of Omaha, No. 09-3332, 8th Cir., 2010)

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