The case is Lee-Walker v. New York City Board of Education, a summary order decided on October 17. I represented the plaintiff in this case. Plaintiff was a public school teacher who wanted to teach her high school students about the Central Park 5, a well-known rape case from 1989 in which five minority youths confessed to a horrible crime but were later exonerated because of the false confessions and evidence that someone else committed the crime. The complaint alleges that a school administrator objected to the class on political grounds, telling plaintiff that the students among other things might riot. Plaintiff alleges she was fired over the class. The lawsuit alleged that the First Amendment prohibited her termination.
In 2004, the Second Circuit held in Silano v. Sag Harbor School District that teachers had a First Amendment right to classroom speech but that school administrators could regulate that speech provided the restrictions are reasonably related to legitimate pedogogical objectives. In other words, the speech restrictions have to be reasonable. Silano would help Lee-Walker's case, since the administrator's objection to her class on the Central Park 5 was political and therefore unreasonable. At least that's the argument that I advanced. That argument, however, ran into Garcetti.
The Supreme Court in Garcetti did not purport to rewrite First Amendment retaliation law. But it did emphasize that "citizen speech" and not "work speech" is protected. This means that a public comptroller who blows the whistle on missing money can get fired for that speech, as it was the comptroller's job to say this. The janitor would have speech rights to blow the whistle on that issue, assuming he actually knew something about the embezzlement. Still, some judges in the Southern District of New York thought Garcetti simply meant that the plaintiff has no First Amendment retaliation case if he is disciplined for mandated speech, that is, where he speaks up because it is his job to speak on a particular matter. That was a reasonable interpretation, but the Court in Garcetti did not exactly say this because Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, did not lay out what the decision really meant. That left it to the Circuit courts to interpret what the Garcetti Court had intended. In 2010, the Second Circuit did that in Weintraub v. Board of Education, which held -- over a vigorous dissent by Judge Calabresi -- that public employee speech is not protected under the First Amendment if it is "part and parcel" of his official duties. Here's the money quote:
under the First Amendment, speech can be “pursuant to” a public employee's official job duties even though it is not required by, or included in, the employee's job description, or in response to a request by the employer. In particular, we conclude that Weintraub's grievance was “pursuant to” his official duties because it was “part-and-parcel of his concerns” about his ability to “properly execute his duties.”The "part and parcel" language expands the employer's authority to regulate the speech. The standard does not just cover mandated speech but a great deal of work-related speech. As a practical matter, this means that anything of importance that a public employee might say would be unprotected under the First Amendment, precisely because the employee will most likely speak out pursuant to something she learned or observed in the course of her official duties. This could lead to strange results. In 2011, I argued an appeal in the Second Circuit, Moray v. Somers Central School District, in which the maintenance supervisor for a school district spoke out about asbestos flaking off the ceiling and onto the gymnasium floor, potentially harming students. The case was dismissed and we appealed. Hamstrung by Garcetti, but recognizing the importance of the plaintiff's speech, Judge Calabresi asked the school district's lawyer, "isn't this an absurd result?" We lost the appeal in a summary affirmance, another Garcetti casualty.
Garcetti was originally argued when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was on the Supreme Court. When she retired from the Court in 2006, the Court ordered re-argument, a rare event probably occasioned by the departure of the Court's swing-vote. With a likely 4-4 vote on this issue, the Court wanted a full slate of judges to resolve this issue. That happened when Samuel Alito joined the Court, which then issued the 5-4 ruling in Garcetti. Alito voted with the majority, and Garcetti became the law of the land.
The problem is that Garcetti is not quite clear about what the Court was trying to do. Was the Court re-writing First Amendment law in this area, deliberately making it more difficult for plaintiffs to win? Or was Garcetti a poorly-written ruling that was subject to interpretation, prompting lower court judges around the country to throw out cases that in years past would have made it to trial? I am going with the latter interpretation.
Two constitutional doctrines now doom most public employee speech cases. First, Garcetti, as I discuss above. The second problem is qualified immunity, which prevents plaintiffs from suing governmental officials for money damages if the law was not clearly established at the time of the incident. If the case law was not crystal clear that the defendant violated some constitutional provision, he gets the benefit of the doubt and the case is dismissed. The theory is that governmental officials are assumed to know the law but are not legal scholars and cannot anticipate how the courts will rule on a given set of facts. The reality is that many governmental officials do not really know the law and rely on their lawyers to make the qualified immunity argument. Nonetheless, qualified immunity is a true barrier to relief for many plaintiffs.
While it was issued in 2006, Garcetti continues to create a qualified immunity problem for plaintiffs. While Lee-Walker's case would probably proceed under the Silano v. Sag Harbor precedent, the Second Circuit in her case said the Silano precedent is no longer clear under Garcetti, as Lee-Walker did speak pursuant to her duties though in an academic context. Silano recognized that classroom speech is entitled to some constitutional protection. Garcetti raises some doubt about this, so Lee-Walker's case is dismissed on qualified immunity grounds. While courts do have authority to clarify the law for future purposes at the same time they find that the plaintiff in the present case does not assert the violation of his clearly-established rights, the courts rarely do this. The law governing academic speech will remain fuzzy and unenforceable for as long as the courts decline to issue a definitive ruling about what speech is protected.
I have had other cases that got lost in the Garcetti graveyard, each of them disregarding prior Second Circuit precedent. In Kiehle v. County of Cortland, the Second Circuit in 2012 held that a DSS social worker could not sue her superiors who fired her because of her courtroom testimony arising from one of her cases. While cases prior to Garcetti held that courtroom speech is sacrosanct and cannot predicate governmental retaliation (including Catletti v. Rampe, a case I argued in 2003), the Second Circuit held that her speech was unprotected under Garcetti. The Second Circuit reasoned:
as the district court concluded based on the indisputable facts, Kiehle did not testify as a private citizen on a matter of public concern at the Family Court hearing; rather, she testified as a government employee — as a DSS caseworker. "[W]hen public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 421 (2006). Thus, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to defendants.We petitioned for certiorari in Kiehle, with help from the Yale Law School constitutional clinic, but the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The Supreme Court later held in Lane v. Franks (2014) that courtroom testimony is protected under the First Amendment. Too late for Kiehle.
A few years later, I took an appeal on behalf of a public official in Nassau County who was fired after he spoke before the County Legislature. A Second Circuit case, Piesco v. City of New York, held that public workers cannot be fired over this speech, as an informed democracy requires public officials to address legislative bodies without fear of retaliation. Of course, I relied on Piesco in Williams v. County of Nassau. The Court of Appeals saw Williams' case as a clear Garcetti case and disregarded Piesco. We petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, enlisting legendary constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky to draft the petition, but the Court declined to hear the case.
What can be done about the diminishing free speech rights of public employees? Forget about a constitutional amendment. The Constitution has been amended only three times in my lifetime, and the last time it happened was 1992 (on a non-civil rights issue having to do with congressional pay). Congress could pass a law, but that is always tricky because I don't see great sympathy among Republican congressmembers and the President for whistleblowers. Even if a law is passed, it might be targeted as unconstitutional, which is what happened when Congress in 1993 tried to overturn a restrictive Supreme Court ruling (Employment Division v. Smith) that scaled back the religious freedom rights under the Establishment Clause. Courts could find ways around Garcetti, but that is rare. The Second Circuit has had many opportunities to carve out exceptions to Garcetti but it rarely does so. The most realistic option is for courts to issue a clear statement of the law for future cases even while granting qualified immunity in a particular case. The Supreme Court says that is an option for the lower courts. So far, the lower courts are not taking the bait.