Supreme CourtOn April 26, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a public agency can incur liability for a First Amendment violation if it demotes or disciplines one of its employee based on the agency’s mistaken belief that the employee has exercised a right of free expression.  The Court’s decision in Heffernan v. City of Paterson

US Supreme CourtAn unprecedented number of protests – at educational institutions and in city streets – occurred nationwide last year, and protests continue to serve as focal points for public attention and debate going into 2016.  The legal realm concerning free speech is in a similar state of turbulence for public employers and for educators.

Here are

Santa_Monica_Beach_with_pier_4Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a Santa Monica City ordinance which prohibited unattended exhibits in Palisades Park, among them displays of the Nativity Scene, erected annually by the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.  The Court found that the City’s ordinance was a valid content-neutral time, place, and

Breaking-News1.jpgOn Thursday, June 19, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court in Lane v. Franks held that the First Amendment protects a public employee who provides truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the scope of his or her ordinary job responsibilities.  In so holding, the Court overturned precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the

LockersMany student discipline matters in public schools involve speech, be it joking threats by the student, outrageous bullying on social media, epithets or hate speech, or clothing containing messages or symbols that violate school rules.  Because they involve speech, these discipline cases can raise substantial First Amendment concerns.

Some view student speech as less valuable

Blue Collar Worker.jpgLast month, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency overseeing private sector labor relations, issued its much anticipated decision in Karl Knauz Motors, Inc dba Knauz BMW and Robert Becker (“Knauz BMW”).  The Board held that the BMW dealership’s “courtesy” rule, which among other things prohibited employees from making remarks that were

2012.png2012 promises to be a significant year for freedom of expression in America, not only because protest movements are expanding across the country in various forms, but also because 2012 is an election year.  And, it will not be just any election, but one involving a “show down” of forces that have railed against each other for years, with rising intensity.

The coming year will also bring significant developments in First Amendment law as it applies to public employers and to educators.  The following are six primary areas worth watching:

1.  Camping and “Occupying” as Protected First Amendment Activity:  Because some public educators are being asked to permit camping on their property as a form of protest, educators will have to watch closely for decisions in this area of the law in 2012.  The forcible removal of a number of occupied camps has led to litigation over the question of whether city actions, and the regulations on which those actions were based, violated the First Amendment.  Under Supreme Court precedent, symbolic conduct itself can qualify as expressive activity meriting First Amendment protection.  The Occupy movement and others have argued that camping on public property now constitutes a mode of expression that should be afforded heightened constitutional protection.  There is, however, already U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the 1984 decision Clark v. Community for Creative Non–Violence, providing that the government may prohibit overnight camping on public property even when the camping is for expressive purposes (in that case, to bring attention to the plight of the homeless).  This fall, a number of district courts addressing Occupy challenges have already applied Clark to enforce government restrictions on overnight camping determined to be content-neutral and reasonable.  Attorneys for protestors nevertheless continue to challenge government enforcement of such regulations, and, it can be argued, they now have more than twenty-five years of precedent since Clark to use to justify a different result consistent with that case’s reasoning.  Significant appellate decisions in this area will likely issue next year.

2.  First Amendment Protection for Falsehoods:  The U.S. Supreme Court will decide soon the unique case of United States v. Alvarez, which concerns the extent to which the First Amendment protects speech that is false.  Alvarez concerns the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, which prohibits individuals among other things from falsely claiming they have won U.S. military distinctions.  The defendant, when speaking in his capacity as a water district board member, falsely boasted that he had received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was subsequently convicted for violating the Stolen Valor Act.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (covering California) found that the statute did not pass a “strict scrutiny” standard of review under the First Amendment.  Some judges on the Ninth Circuit, however, expressed the view that the statute, in fact, is constitutional, primarily because speech that is false cannot have First Amendment protection.  They also reasoned that prohibiting false speech does not, except in narrow circumstances, have an excessive chilling effect on protected speech.  The Supreme Court recently decided to review this case. 

A holding by the Supreme Court that false speech can have direct or indirect First Amendment protection may prompt public employees to make free speech retaliation claims in more sets of circumstances.  For example, a broad Alvarez holding could inspire an employee disciplined for knowingly or recklessly wrong speech to claim the speech nevertheless has First Amendment protection precluding discipline, or that the agency rule at issue chills even truthful speech, under expansive Alvarez reasoning.  A clear holding by the Supreme Court that false speech as a general principle lacks constitutional protection would help rule out those types of claims, which in most cases would likely lack merit in any event given the substantial harm false statements can cause in work at public agencies and in schools.  

The Alvarez case is thought to present a close question, however.  For a vivid discussion of supposed First Amendment dangers in statutes like the Stolen Valor Act, see Chief Judge Kozinksi’s concurrence in the Ninth Circuit’s denial of rehearing, which invokes the specter of the “truth police” and lists scenarios in which a “utopia” that allowed criminal prosecution of any falsehood would be “terrifying.”  The U.S. Supreme Court oral argument next year and the Court’s opinion will receive substantial attention from academics, lawyers, the press, and the public. 

3.  The Definition of “Official Duties” for Purposes of Public Employee Free Speech Claims:  Federal courts of appeal will probably also provide a more detailed analysis of what constitutes “official duties” for purposes of free speech claims by public employees.  In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Garcetti v. Ceballos, that a public employee cannot assert a free speech claim against his or her employer if the speech at issue was rendered pursuant to “official duties.”  Since 2006, courts across the country have developed sometimes conflicting standards for applying Garcetti.  Some courts, notably the Second Circuit (encompassing New York), have recognized “official duties” to encompass basically anything the employee does in the work context to advance his or her generalized job goals.  In Weintraub v. Board of Education, the standard was considered to include a teacher’s wholly voluntary act of filing a grievance regarding working conditions.  This broad definition of “official duties” may be adopted in the next year in other circuits as well.  


Continue Reading The First Amendment In Public Employment And Education – Six Issues For The Year 2012

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in Johnson v. Poway Unified School District, yesterday issued a decision that answers numerous questions bearing on the First Amendment free speech rights of high school teachers.  At the core of Johnson is the extent to which high school teachers’ expression to students in the course of instruction is protected by the First Amendment.

The facts of Johnson are as follows.  The Poway Unified School District allowed teachers to place posters and other materials on the walls of their classrooms conveying messages completely of the individual teacher’s choosing.  Examples included anti-war materials and posters of rock musicians Nirvana, Bruce Springsteen, and the Beatles.  Some of the materials appeared to pertain to religion, including: a 35 to 40-foot long string of Tibetan prayer flags with writings in Sanskrit and images of Buddha; a poster of John Lennon and the lyrics to the song “Imagine” (which at one point asks listeners to imagine a world with “no religion”); a poster of Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama; and posters of Muslim minister Malcolm X.

Bradley Johnson, a math teacher, maintained in his classroom two banners, each approximately seven feet wide and two feet tall.  One, striped in red, white and blue, contained the phrases: “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “God Shed His Grace On Thee.”  A second banner quoted from the Declaration of Independence by stating “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator,” and placed the word “Creator” in all uppercase letters.  Johnson had taught at the school for 30 years.  The first banner had been in his classroom for 25 years, and the second for 17 years.

In 2007, the District, concerned about a violation of principles of separation of church and state ordered that Johnson remove the banners.  Johnson sued alleging his First Amendment free speech rights had been violated. 

The trial court agreed with Johnson, and granted his motion for summary judgment.  It did so by applying First Amendment “forum analysis,” specifically by determining that once the District had allowed teachers free reign to express themselves through posters and other expression on their classroom walls, the District could not then pick and choose what teachers could express. 


Continue Reading The Ninth Circuit Decides “Religious Banners” Case On First Amendment Rights Of Public School Teachers