A School District’s rights to limit employee free speech was recently upheld by the U.S. Western District Court of Pennsylvania in Cook v. New Castle Area School District. Cook, in a Section 1983 Civil Rights free speech retaliation claim, was a case in which the employee argued that the School District improperly limited his election-related speech to a co-worker during school hours. The Court reiterated that the law is clear that the First Amendment allows a public employer to regulate its employees’ speech in ways that it could never regulate speech from a member of the general public. Courts apply the test enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Pickering v. Board of Education. Under the Pickering test, a public employee is protected from adverse employment actions based on speech when that speech: (1) addresses a matter of public concern; and (2) outweighs “the government’s interest in the effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities to the public.”
Whether speech is a matter of public concern depends on the content, form, and context of a given statement. A court must consider whether the statement relates to any matter of political, social or other concern to the community, keeping in mind that having free and unhindered debate on matters of public importance is at the core of values protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. If the speech is not a matter of public concern, but rather addresses a private matter only, it enjoys no constitutional protection.
In Cook, the topic of conversation was the election of the President of the School Board which was a matter of public concern. However, in applying the second prong of the Pickering test, the District Court held that the School District had a compelling interest in the effective and efficient fulfillment of employee responsibilities during work hours. The School District’s interest “in maintaining a functional workplace” outweighs the employee’s interest in having a casual discussion about a local School Board election with another school employee during work hours. The Court recognized that the election of local officials is obviously a contentious issue that has the potential to create conflict between employees. Therefore, the Court agreed that the School District could limit or regulate the speech because it had a reasonable interest in ensuring that there is a good working relationship between its employees and that its employees are not disrupted during work hours.
If your School District is confronted with a similar free speech issue, the Court’s Cook decision provides guidance when balancing an employee’s free speech rights with a School District’s legitimate interest in maintaining an efficient workplace.