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Court Decides Free Speech Rights of Government Employees
If you are a government employee, you do not forfeit your first amendment rights. You still have the right to speak out on issues of public importance. But not everything you say is protected and you can be disciplined for certain remarks, especially if your speech is job-related and poses a problem for your superiors. In the case of Huppert v. City of Pittsburgh, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a police officer’s testimony to a grand jury investigating corruption was job-related and not protected. Two officers who cooperated with the investigation were transferred to less desirable assignments and they sued, contending that they were being penalized for exercising their right to free speech. The court ruled against them and confirmed a five step test to weigh free speech claims by public employees: 1) Is the person speaking out on a matter of public concern? 2) Did the person speak as a citizen or as a public employee? 3) Was the speech a motivating factor in the adverse employment action? 4) Did the government have adequate justification for treating the employee differently from other members of the general public? And 5) Would the state have taken the adverse action even without the speech in question? Although the court rejected the officers’ claims under the broad federal civil rights remedies statute (42 U.S.C. section 1983), it did leave open the possibility that they might have been protected under California’s “whistleblower” statutes (see, for example, California Labor Code section 1102.5 and Government Code sections 8547-8547.12). Read more in the attached court opinion explaining the result.