Public employees have the right to free speech and can’t be punished for exercising it. But that doesn’t mean they can say anything, anywhere. The exercise of free speech must concern a matter of public importance and not be done as part of the employee’s job.
Recent case: Peter, a white police sergeant, got along well with everyone until a black police chief was hired. The new chief passed Peter over for a promotion that went to a black woman.
Peter and the woman had a number of run-ins over the next two years. Their conflict came to a head after the woman asked for bereavement leave to attend her grandmother’s funeral. However, she didn’t go to the funeral, instead staying home for three days.
When caught, she argued that bereavement leave wasn’t just to attend funerals, but also to recover from the emotional effects of a family death. She wasn’t officially punished, but instead asked for a voluntary demotion.
At the next staff meeting, Peter asked whether she had been demoted as punishment. Peter was fired for his comments.
He sued, alleging that when he questioned the use of bereavement leave, he was exercising his free speech rights.
The court tossed out his suit. It reasoned that by asking questions at a staff meeting, Peter was performing his job and not speaking out on a matter of public importance. His questions were therefore not protected. (Paske v. Fitzgerald, No. 14-20292, 5th Cir., 2015)