Public employers, take note: If an employee has an outspoken spouse who chooses to voice concerns about the actions of the government agency, think twice before punishing the employee. It may amount to depriving the spouse of her First Amendment right to speak out on public issues. The spouse can then sue for her injury.
Recent case: Keith Sigler was a police officer for the city of Englewood. The chief of police married a female officer, and many of the other officers were upset that the new wife might get special treatment.
But it was Sigler’s wife who was the most outspoken. She created an anonymous handbill that described why she believed other officers and citizens were endangered by the marriage. She speculated that the police chief might hesitate to have his wife respond to a bank robbery call and send other officers instead. She also sent an anonymous letter to the county sheriff.
Shortly after the fliers appeared, the police investigated and traced their origin to Sigler’s wife. Sigler was then fired.
Mrs. Sigler sued, alleging that by firing her husband, the city was punishing her for exercising her First Amendment rights.
The courts agreed she had a case in principle, concluding that firing a spouse was the sort of harm that might have a chilling effect on protected speech. (Sigler, et al., v. City of Englewood, No. 3:07-CV-092, SD OH, 2008)
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