Public employees’ constitutional rights are important. Recent figures suggest that sixteen million Americans — more than 10 percent of the nation’s workforce — are employed by a state or local government, with another two million, approximately, employed by the federal government. With the economic downturn, even more workers are moving from the private sector to typically more secure public sector jobs. See, e.g., “Despite Downturn, Federal Workforce Grows; Stimulus Plan Expected to Increase the Ranks at State, Local Levels,” MSNBC News Report, January 31, 2009 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28952802/). Simply put, public employees are a major and growing part of our workforce. However, public employees’ rights are now vulnerable, after the recent decision in Greenwell v. Parsley, 541 F.3d 401 (6th Cir. 2008).
In Greenwell, a deputy sheriff was fired because he ran for sheriff against the incumbent. The Sixth Circuit in Kentucky held that such a firing does not implicate the First Amendment, relying on an earlier precedent from that court which said that “[t]he First Amendment does not require that an official in [an employer’s] situation nourish a viper in the nest.” Id. at 404 (citing Carver v. Dennis, 104 F.3d 847, 850-53 (6th Cir. 1997)).  Other circuits disagree, and rightly conclude that a public employee’s candidacy for office should be protected to at least the same degree as a public employee’s political speech. See, e.g., James v. Texas Collin County, 535 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2008); Finkelstein v. Bergna, 924 F.2d 1449 (9th Cir. 1991); Flinn v. Gordon, 775 F.2d 1551 (11th Cir. 1985); Washington v. Finlay, 664 F.2d 913 (4th Cir. 1981); Newcomb v. Brennan, 558 F.2d 825 (7th Cir. 1977); and Magill v. Lynch, 560 F.2d 22 (1st Cir. 1977).
The Greenwell plaintiff recently petitioned for the Supreme Court to overturn the 6th Circuit, in light of the 6th Circuit’s clear split with other Circuits on this issue. See Petition for Certiorari, 77 USLW 3619 (Apr 27, 2009) (No. 08-1328). The Supreme Court should grant review (certiorari) because “citizens are not deprived of fundamental rights by virtue of working for the government.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 147 (1983). Running for office is a fundamental right.
The Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563, 573, 88 S.Ct. 1731 (1968), set forth a balancing test for public employees’ First Amendment rights in the workplace. More recently, in 2006, the Supreme Court acknowledged, in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 126 S.Ct. 1951 (2006), “Many citizens do much of their talking inside their respective workplaces, and it would not serve the goal of treating public employees ‘like any member of the general public,’ [citing Pickering], to hold that all speech within the office is automatically exposed to restriction.” Garcetti, 126 S.Ct. at 1959. Greenwell seemingly eliminates the Pickering balance, reiterated recently in Garcetti.
There are four issues that warrant Supreme Court review of the Greenwell decision’s divergent holding: 1) whether a public employee may be prevented from speaking on a matter of public concern without balancing the interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern; 2) whether a public employee who communicates an intent to run for office has engaged in protected First Amendment speech; 3) whether a public employee can be fired based on the employee’s political affiliation even when that affiliation is irrelevant to the performance of the employee’s job; and 4) the depth of public employees’ First Amendment protections generally.
1. Public employees’ interests – as citizens – must be given weight.
Greenwell’s reactionary result – that the employer’s interest is all-encompassing and that the employees’ rights need not enter into the balance at all – erodes Pickering and its progeny to the point of meaninglessness. Certainly, the Supreme Court will undoubtedly find, an employee whose hostility to his employer (a public officeholder) reaches the level of insubordination, can be properly removed. See, e.g., Curran v. Cousins, 509 F.3d 36, 49 (1st Cir. 2007) (citing Stanley v. City of Dalton, Ga., 219 F.3d 1280, 1290 (11th Cir.2000)) (speech done in a vulgar, insulting, and defiant manner is entitled to less weight in the Pickering balance). But there still must be some balancing in this analysis.
2. The Court should not construe narrowly what kinds of public employees’ communications engender constitutional protection.
Contrary to Greenwell’s result, “speech on public issues occupies the ‘highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values,’ and is entitled to special protection.” Connick, 461 U.S. at 145. After Greenwell and the 2006 Garcetti decision, a public employee cannot expect protection if he/she responsibly disagrees with the employer regarding a matter of public concern within the scope of his/her duties, nor if he/she tries to shift policy by dislodging the public officeholder. Essentially, this would leave a public employee devoid of the protection envisioned by Connick – unable to change a bad regime and stuck in it, without recourse, unless he/she is willing to sacrifice secure employment and the ability to provide for his/her family.
3. The right to run for office is encompassed in the right to political association.
The Supreme Court has previously held that “[t]he First Amendment protects political association as well as political expression,” and that “[t]he right to associate with the political party of one’s choice is an integral part of this basic constitutional freedom” of association. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 357 (1976) (plurality opinion) (quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 15 (1976) (per curiam). Those who devote their life to public service should not be deprived, contrary to Connick, the basic rights provided other citizens.
4. The Supreme Court should reaffirm the breadth of public employees’ constitutional protections.
Greenwell is particularly important because, despite the favorable language in Garcetti about treating public employees like members of the general public with respect to First Amendment expression, that 2006 Supreme Court decision may have raised doubts about the depth of public employees’ constitutional rights. In Garcetti, the Supreme Court held that “when 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, 126 S.Ct. at 1960. Public employees need the Court, in reviewing Greenwell, to reestablish the strong First Amendment protections they still have on the job. See, e.g., Givhan v. Western Line Consol. School Dist., 439 U.S. 410, 414, 99 S.Ct. 693, 58 L.Ed.2d 619 (1979).
 The concurrence in Greenwell by Circuit Judge Boyce Martin invites Supreme Court review of both Greenwell and Carver. Judge Boyce’s strong language in his concurrence is compelling (rivaling Carver’s viper imagery): he described Carver, upon which Greenwell relied, as “a stray cat that hangs around the door and infests the house with fleas,” stating that Carver “continues to plague this Court’s jurisprudence. As such, we are bound by its conclusion.” Greenwell, 541 F.3d at 405-406.
Bryan Schwartz: Bryan Schwartz is an Oakland, CA-based attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law.
This article was originally posted on Bryan Schwartz Law on May 21, 21009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.