|Connick v. Myers
654 F.2d 719, reversed.
[ White ]
[ Brennan ]
Connick v. Myers
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
Respondent was employed as an Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans with the responsibility of trying criminal cases. When petitioner District Attorney proposed to transfer respondent to prosecute cases in a different section of the criminal court, she strongly opposed the transfer, expressing her view to several of her supervisors, including petitioner. Shortly thereafter, she prepared a questionnaire that she distributed to the other Assistant District Attorneys in the office concerning office transfer policy, office morale, the need for a grievance committee, the level ,of confidence in supervisors, and whether employees felt pressured to work in political campaigns. Petitioner then informed respondent that she was being terminated for refusal to accept the transfer, and also told her that her distribution of the questionnaire was considered an act of insubordination. Respondent filed suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1976 ed., Supp. V), alleging that she was wrongfully discharged because she had exercised her constitutionally protected right of free speech. The District Court agreed, ordered her reinstated, and awarded backpay, damages, and attorney's fees. Finding that the questionnaire, not the refusal to accept the transfer, was the real reason for respondent's termination, the court held that the questionnaire involved matters of public concern and that the State had not "clearly demonstrated" that the questionnaire interfered with the operation of the District Attorney's office. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: Respondent's discharge did not offend the First Amendment. Pp. 142-154.
(a) In determining a public employee's rights of free speech, the problem is to arrive
at a balance between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.
Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 568. P. 142.
(b) When a public employee speaks not as a citizen upon matters of public concern, but instead as an employee upon matters only of personal interest, absent the most unusual circumstances, a federal court is not [p139] the appropriate forum in which to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction to the employee's behavior. Here, except for the question in respondent's questionnaire regarding pressure upon employees to work in political campaigns, the questions posed do not fall under the rubric of matters of "public concern." Pp. 143-149.
(c) The District Court erred in imposing an unduly onerous burden on the State to justify respondent's discharge by requiring it to "clearly demonstrate" that the speech involved "substantially interfered" with the operation of the office. The State's burden in justifying a particular discharge varies depending upon the nature of the employee's expression. Pp. 149-150.
(d) The limited First Amendment interest involved here did not require petitioner to tolerate action that he reasonably believed would disrupt the office, undermine his authority, and destroy the close working relationships within the office. The question on the questionnaire regarding the level of confidence in supervisors was a statement that carried the clear potential for undermining office relations. Also, the fact that respondent exercised her rights to speech at the office supports petitioner's fears that the function of his office was endangered. And the fact that the questionnaire emerged immediately after a dispute between respondent and petitioner and his deputies requires that additional weight be given to petitioner's view that respondent threatened his authority to run the office. Pp. 150-154.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J. filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS JJ., joined, post, p. 156. [p140]