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Free Speech Rights and the Disgruntled Public Employee

On the eve of Halloween, the 7th Circuit released a decision which may raise additional concerns for public employers.  In Meade v. Moraine Valley Community College, the Court held that public employees are able to openly criticize their employers when the topic of speech includes matters of public concern.  This ruling further solidifies the Supreme Court’s decision in Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. from 1968.

Robin Meade was an adjunct faculty member at Moraine Valley Community College.  After becoming frustrated with the treatment of adjuncts at the college, Meade published a letter critiquing Moraine Valley’s treatment of adjunct faculty as a disposable resource, the adjuncts’ heavy role in educating the student population, and the negative effect this has on the student experience.  In response to Meade’s published letter, Moraine Valley sent her a notice of termination just two days later.  Meade then filed suit against Moraine Valley.

On appeal from the District Court’s ruling, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of Meade.  The Court held that a teacher such as Meade cannot be fired for exercising her right of free speech on matters of public concern.  “Public Concern” was defined by the Supreme Court in City of San Diego v. Roe as “a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public at the time of publication.”  Meade’s letter focused on the effect the college’s actions were having on the student experience, a clear area of public concern.  However, the Court held that even if her letter had simply focused on the treatment of adjunct faculty, its subject would still fall under that category of a matter of public concern, as the expanded use of adjunct faculty has become nationally criticized.

Moraine Valley argued that Meade’s letter was self-serving, due to her status as an adjunct, and was motivated by an employee grievance.  The Court stated that undue weight should never be placed on the motive behind the speech made by a public employee.  Whether personal or not, the Court will look at the context, form and content of the letter to determine if it covers an area of public concern.  Regardless of how angry Meade may have been when writing her letter, the content of the letter is what the Court most considered.

This ruling affects not only community colleges, but all public employers.  School corporations, public universities, municipalities, and government agencies should all keep this standard in mind when reviewing the published speech or writings of their employees.  A grievance expressed by an employee with the local paper or news station may or may not be protected speech.  Even postings by an employee on social media may be protected depending on context and content.  It is important for employers to speak with legal counsel or their attorney before taking action.

For additional information, please contact any member of the KDDK education law or labor and employment law practice team, or call (812) 423-3183.