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Government workers’ ‘free speech’ might be nothing more than insubordination

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Public employees are protected from being fired for exercising their right to free speech—but government agencies still have the right to manage their workforces.

Those rights may clash when a public employee complains about how she is supposed to do her job. She may think her supervisors are wrong, while management may feel it has the right to dictate how the agency will run.

The good news is that, in most cases, the employer’s interests prevail.

Recent case: Rita Miller worked as a probation officer and was a staunch believer in rehabilitation. Her supervisors had a more jaded view. They constantly pushed Miller to crack down on her probationers to comply with the rules judges had laid out when approving their release from prison.

Miller wrote a letter to the judge presiding over the Court of Common Pleas of Clinton County, complaining about her supervisors’ attitude toward those on probation and claiming they were liars. The judge fired Miller the next day.

She sued, alleging that her letter was an exercise of her First Amendment right to free speech and that she should not have been fired for sending it.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It looked at the content of the letter and concluded it wasn’t protected speech. It didn’t deal with matters of public concern such as corruption. Instead, the letter focused on her personal gripes as an employee. The case was dismissed. (Miller v. Clinton County, et al., No. 07-2105, 3rd Cir., 2008)

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