Wednesday, October 11, 2017

No First Amendment claim for teacher who objected to cheating students

The Court of Appeals holds that a professor cannot sue a public college under the First Amendment even though he suffered retaliation for refusing to allow his students to cheat. This case again illustrates the hurdles faced in presenting public employee speech claims.

The case is Bhattacharya v. SUNY Rockland Community College, a summary order decided on October 10. To prevail in a public employee speech claim, the plaintiff must show (1) he spoke on a matter of public importance and (2) he spoke out as a citizen and not as an employee. The first element (public concern) derives from a Supreme Court ruling, Connick v. Myers (1983). The second element (citizen speech) derives from another Supreme Court ruling, Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). The idea is that the government cannot operate efficiently if employees are allowed to speak on personal or trivial matters that do not concern the public. These cases also advance the principle --- which courts love to remind us -- that courts are not "super-personnel" departments and that under the "at-will" employment principle, management can treat its employees any way that it wants to so long as it does not violate a specific legal principle.

Plaintiff spoke as an employee and not as a citizen in refusing to permit his students to cheat. This speech was "part and parcel" of his official duties, even a "core duty" as a teacher. In addition, the Court (Lohier, Droney and Rakoff [D.J.]) says, "there is no plausible allegation that the speech at issue was on a matter of public concern rather than 'calculated to redress a personal grievance' between Bhattacharya and his students."

Plaintiff offers the Court an angle that would get around Garcetti: that his speech relates to scholarship or teacher. Garcetti did decline to specifically hold that the citizen/employee speech distinction applied to public schools. The concern was academic freedom. That argument will not work here. Whatever the Supreme Court intended in staking out a possible exception for academic freedom, plaintiff's case does not implicate those concerns. While the Second Circuit has "recognized an academic freedom claim where a restriction on speech implicates the content of a teacher's lessons or restricts a school's ability to determine its curriculum," plaintiff does not allege any of that here.

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