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Government employees don’t check their Constitutional rights at the workplace door

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Public employees don’t lose their First Amendment free speech rights when they take a government job. Their employer can’t punish them for speaking out on matters of public importance.

Recent case: Thomas, a police officer, claimed he discovered that the mayor and others had engaged in alleged fraud in obtaining federal disaster relief funds. He went to the FBI, which persuaded him to wear a recording device and gather information.

As a result of his efforts, the mayor and the police chief (Thomas’s boss) were indicted and lost their jobs.

The next police chief made it clear to Thomas that he didn’t appreciate his prior efforts. In fact, he frequently asked Thomas if he was wearing a wire.

Eventually, the police chief launched an investigation into whether Thomas might have stolen a flash drive. Thomas confronted him about the investigation and apparently got into a heated argument that ended with Thomas being terminated.

He sued, alleging he had been fired in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment right to speak out about matters of public importance.

The lower court tossed out the case, reasoning that working with the FBI was not free speech.

But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, concluding that it was the exercise of free speech. A police officer’s job doesn’t ordinarily require wearing a wire or reporting fraud to the FBI; thus Thomas was acting as a citizen, not merely doing his job. (Howell v. Ball, No. 15-30552, 5th Cir., 2016)

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