Why is the case important?
A District Attorney’s dismissal for circulating a questionnaire in protest of her proposed transfer was upheld by the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) even though one question in her survey touched upon “public concern.” Since there was such a limited “public concern” element here, the Supreme Court found that her boss’ decision to terminate her was permissible under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution).
Facts of the case
Sheila Meyers worked as an Assistant District Attorney for just over five years when her boss transferred her to a different section of the criminal court. Meyers strongly opposed this transfer, and made her feelings known to several supervisors, including District Attorney Harry Connick. Before the official transfer took place, Meyers prepared a questionnaire asking for her co-workers views on the transfer policy, office morale, and the level of confidence in supervisors. When Connick learned of the questionnaire, he immediately terminated Meyers. He said he fired her because she refused to accept her transfer. He also said that distributing the questionnaire was insubordination. Meyers sued, alleging that her termination violated her First Amendment right to free speech. The district court ruled in favor of Meyers and ordered her reinstatement, payment of back pay, damages, and attorney fees. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Whether Respondent’s termination was a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution?
Whether the questionnaire constituted a matter of public concern?
No. Judgment of the lower court reversed. Respondent’s questionnaire touched upon matters of public concern only in a limited sense. The limited First Amendment interested involved here does not require Petitioner to tolerate action which he believes would disrupt the office, undermine his authority and destroy close working relationship. Therefore, Respondent’s termination was not a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Yes, but to a limited extent. Whether an employee’s speech constitutes a matter of public concern must be determined by the content, form and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record. In this case, with but one exception, the Respondent’s questions do not fall under the public concern rubric. The questionnaire, if released to the public would impart no information at all other than that one employee is dissatisfied with the status quo. However, the questionnaire does touch on one matter of public concern in question 11 where Respondent asks whether the public employees ever feel pressured to work on political campaigns. Because one of the questions touches on a matter of public concern, the Supreme Court of the United States must determine whether Petitioner was justified in terminating her employment. The state’s burden in justifying a particular discharge varies depending on the nature of the employee’s expression. There must be a full consideration of the
government’s interest in the effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities to the public. Petitioner’s judgment was that Respondent’s questionnaire was an act of insubordination, which interfered with working relationships. When employee speech concerning office policy arises from an employment dispute concerning the very application of that policy to the speaker, additional weight must be given to the supervisor’s view that the employee has threatened the authority of the employer to run the office. Therefore, he was justified in his dismissal of the Respondent.
The Court held that Myers’ discharge did not offend the First Amendment. The questionnaire was an employee grievance concerning internal office policy. The questions posed in the survey were not matters of public concern. The purpose of the questionnaire was to precipitate a vote of no confidence in the supervisor. The functioning of the supervisor’s office was endangered, because Myers exercised her rights to speech at the office. The limited First Amendment interest involved in the case did not require the supervisor to tolerate action which he reasonably believed would disrupt the office, undermine his authority, and destroy close working relationships.
- Case Brief: 1983
- Petitioner: Harry Connick
- Respondent: Sheila Meyers
- Decided by: Burger Court
Citation: 461 US 138 (1983)
Argued: Nov 8, 1982
Decided: Apr 20, 1983
Granted Mar 8, 1982