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Government employees have limited free-Speech rights

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in Human Resources

The days are just about over of public employees speaking out against their employers’ actions and claiming they were simply exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.

The Constitution doesn’t provide protection for those acting in an official capacity. That isn’t speaking out—it’s just doing your job. Ironically, doing just that can result in you being fired if those above don’t like what was said.

Recent case: Michael Callahan worked as an Illinois State Police lieutenant when he came across a cold case dating back to July 1986. Karen and Dyke Rhoads had been murdered, and Callahan determined that the two who were convicted of the crime were innocent. They were released.

But Callahan didn’t stop there. He kept investigating and concluded that the real culprit may have been a politically influential man who was originally a person of interest in the case. Callahan discovered that the man may have donated money to several high-ranking politicians’ campaigns and was under investigation for alleged criminal wrongdoing unrelated to the murder case. That’s when Callahan’s supervisors suddenly transferred him.

Callahan sued the supervisors who transferred him, alleging he had been punished for speaking out on a matter of public importance—namely a botched murder investigation. A jury agreed and awarded Callahan $700,000.

But the state appealed, and now the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has tossed out Callahan’s case. It cited a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court case that limited the freedom-of-speech rights of public employees to speech not related to official duties. The Supreme Court ruled that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”

Because Callahan never spoke as a private citizen, but instead was merely performing his job as a state trooper, the First Amendment did not protect him. (Callahan v. Fermun, et al., No. 05-4313, 7th Cir., 2008)

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