Public employers can’t punish employees for speaking out on matters of public importance. That doesn’t mean, however, that whatever an employee says is protected.
One big exception involves speech when part of the employee’s job is to speak up about the topic. That’s not protected speech.
Recent case: Ronald Isler drove a school bus for the Keystone School District, transporting students, including some with disabilities. About five months before his contract was to expire, Isler reported to his supervisors a bus incident involving the safety of a disabled student.
When the school district declined to renew his contract, Isler filed a retaliation lawsuit against the school district and everyone involved in the decision.
Isler claimed his right to free speech had been violated, trying to tie what his attorney called “advocacy” for the disabled to the nonrenewal of his contract.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Isler’s claim. First, it noted that there had been no advocacy involved—just a report to his supervisor about a bus incident that happened to involve a disabled student. Plus, there was absolutely no evidence that the disabled student’s rights had been violated in any way.
Second, the court noted that, as a bus driver, Isler was required to report incidents to the administration. Public employees aren’t engaged in protected free speech when the speech is part of doing their jobs. (Isler v. Keystone School District, No. 08-3853, 3rd Cir., 2009)
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