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No free speech protection when speaking out is just part of government worker’s job

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Unlike employees in the private sector, government workers have the right to speak out on matters of public importance without being punished for doing so.

But that right is limited. For example, a public employee speaking out when doing so is part of her job can’t claim First Amendment protection.

Recent case: Tristan was a teacher and managed her school district’s emotional and behavioral disorders program. Part of her job was to speak to parents about their children’s progress.

Tristan complained, first to her supervisor in the administration and then to HR, about what she claimed were students who were ready to move to mainstream classes because their behaviors had improved. She argued that they were being held back because of “improper financial considerations.”

When she didn’t get satisfactory resolutions to her complaints, she forwarded her complaints to fellow teachers, too.

Soon after, she collapsed and never returned to work. She did, however, sue, alleging that she had engaged in free speech and that her employer had pushed her to the limit when she collapsed and stopped working.

The court rejected her First Amendment claims. It reasoned that speaking out on her students’ behalf was part of her job. As such, she wasn’t speaking out about a matter of public importance—she was just doing her job. That can’t be the basis for a lawsuit. (Coomes v. Edmonds School District, No. 13-35747, 5th Cir., 2016)

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