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Government employers: Don’t trample on workers’ rights to speak out on public matters

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

Public employees don’t lose their rights to free speech just because they work for a government agency. They retain the right to speak out on matters of public importance, and they can’t be punished for exercising that right.

That’s why, if you work for the gov­­ern­ment, you should warn super­visors against any action that smacks of punishing employees for speaking out. The resulting retaliation law­­suit will consume time and re­­sources—even if your agency wins in the end.

Recent case: When David Hutchins, a deputy sheriff, called a radio talk show to complain that the sheriff avoided interacting with some black groups, the sheriff got upset. He called the same show and said Hutchins was bitter because of discipli­nary action the sheriff took against him for alleged sexual harassment.

Hutchins sued, alleging retaliation for engaging in free speech by criticizing his boss.

The sheriff countered that he, too, had free speech and that nothing he said could be seen as retaliation, because it referenced past discipline and didn’t threaten future punishment.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and dismissed Hutchins’ case, but only after the sheriff’s department had to expend time, money and energy defending against a needless lawsuit. (Hutchins v. Clarke, et al., No. 10-2661, 7th Cir., 2011)

Final note: The sheriff should have ignored radio call-in—or at least responded without attacking Hutchins.

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