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Government employees have only limited free-speech protection under First Amendment

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in Human Resources

Government employees have the right to speak out on matters of public importance without being punished by their employers, but that right has limitations. One of those involves speaking out on issues that are directly related to the job the employee holds.

Recent case: Kevin Oras worked for a police department and was in charge of the Support Services Division. One of his duties was to screen purchase vouchers that involved substantial amounts of money.

Oras received a voucher for a costly new police communications system and decided to investigate further before signing off. Oras suspected there might have been fraud, waste or abuse involved in the purchase and reported his concerns to city officials.

Shortly after, Oras was transferred. He continued investigating, was demoted and then retired. Then he sued, alleging that his employer had retaliated against him for speaking out.

The court tossed out the case because the speech at issue directly involved Oras’ job—it was his responsibility to make sure vouchers were approved only for legitimate purchases. Because the speech was part of doing his job, he couldn’t claim he was being punished for speaking out. (Oras v. City of Jersey City, No. 08-2277, 3rd Cir., 2009)

Final note:
Public employers, take heart: If an employee is constantly making charges you have already determined are unfounded, and raising those charges are part of his job, you can tell him to stop.

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