Facebook & the First Amendment: Limited free speech right for government employees

Workers don’t give up their First Amendment rights when they take a government job. But that doesn’t mean that they can say anything, anywhere.

If a public employee holds a particularly sensitive position and she makes public statements that cause major disruption at work, her speech may not be protected.

Recent case: Leah worked for the Anoka County Attorney as his spokesperson. He was responsible for defending county employees accused of improper behavior.

Leah posted political commentary on her personal Facebook page that criticized in no uncertain terms the highly publicized 2015 death of a Baltimore man in police custody. This upset members of the sheriff’s department.

Her post was followed by a second one criticizing former president Ronald Reagan and Republicans in general. This time she was fired after her boss determined that she was interfering with his ability to represent all constituencies, of all political parties.

Leah sued, alleging interference with her right to free speech.

The court dismissed her case. It pointed out that her speech—although concerning matters of public importance—also had a major impact on her place of employment in which she held a special sensitive role. Leah was the press officer who would be the department’s public face in any crisis that resembled the one in Baltimore. That weighed in favor of termination, despite her free speech rights. (Palmer v. County of Anoka, No. 16-CV-07672, DC MN, 2016)