The Supreme Court ruled yesterday, 5 to 4, that public employes who complain about their bosses or working conditions are not protected by the constitutional right to free speech and can be fired.
The case involved Sheila Myers, an assistant district attorney in New Orleans, who was fired in 1980 after she circulated a questionnaire among her co-workers asking about office morale, the level of confidence in supervisors, the need for a grievance committee and possible pressure on workers to participate in political campaigns.
Both the U.S. District Court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had found that Myers' constitutional rights were violated and ordered that she be reinstated with back pay and $1,500 in damages.
But the Supreme Court ruled that, while the First Amendment protects the right of public workers to speak out on issues of public interest, it does not protect a worker's right to be heard on internal office matters.
Speaking for the majority, Justice Byron R. White said, "While as a matter of good judgment, public officials should be receptive to constructive criticism offered by their employes, the First Amendment does not require a public office to be run as a round table for employe complaints over internal office affairs."
"When a public employe speaks not as a citizen upon matters of public concern, but instead as an employe upon matters only of personal interest, absent the most unusual circumstances, a federal court is not the appropriate forum in which to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency . . . ," White said.
In a strongly written dissenting opinion, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said that the court's ruling "inevitably will deter public employes from making critical statements about the manner in which government agencies are operated for fear that doing so will provoke their dismissal. As a result, the public will be deprived of valuable information with which to evaluate the performance of elected officials."
Calling the decision "flawed," Brennan said: "The First Amendment affords special protection to speech that may inform public debate about how our society is to be governed--regardless of whether it actually becomes the subject of a public controversy."
Brennan was joined in his dissent by Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens.
Charles Sims, who had intervened in the case on Myers' side on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said yesterday that he was disappointed by the loss, but does not believe it will affect government "whistle blowers" whose complaints are about issues outside their immediate job conditions.
"Insofar as a public employe talks about a matter of general public concern, I'm sure the court will not backtrack from giving them strong protection," he said.
In addition, Sims said that public employes have protections other than the Constitution, including the Civil Service regulations and union contracts.
Private employes, on the other hand, have no constitutional free speech rights on the job except those specifically written into union contracts.
New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick said he fired Myers, who had tried criminal cases in the office for more than five years, because she had resisted his efforts to change her assignment and because he considered the questionnaire an act of insubordination.
In overturning the lower court decisions in Connick vs. Myers, the Supreme Court said there was a delicate "balance" between Myers' free speech rights and "the practical realities involved in the administration of a government office."
"Although today the balance is struck for the government, this is no defeat for the First Amendment," White said.
"Perhaps the government employer's dismissal of the worker may not be fair, but ordinary dismissals from government service which violate no fixed tenure or applicable statute or regulation are not subject to judicial review, even if the reasons for the dismissal are alleged to be mistaken or unreasonable."