Garcetti v. Ceballos Case Brief

Facts of the case

Richard Ceballos, an employee of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, found that a sheriff misrepresented facts in a search warrant affidavit. Ceballos notified the attorneys prosecuting the case stemming from that arrest and all agreed that the affidavit was questionable, but the D.A.’s office refused to dismiss the case. Ceballos then told the defense he believed the affidavit contained false statements, and defense counsel subpoenaed him to testify. Seeking damages in federal district court, Ceballos alleged that D.A.s in the office retaliated against him for his cooperation with the defense, which he argued was protected by the First Amendment. The district court ruled that the district attorneys were protected by qualified immunity, but the Ninth Circuit reversed and ruled for Ceballos, holding that qualified immunity was not available to the defendants because Ceballos had been engaged in speech that addressed matters of public concern and was thus protected by the First Amendment.

Why is the case important?

Richard Ceballos (P) sued the government (D) for disciplining his communications which opposed government interests, on the ground that the government’s action violated the First Amendment.


Can a public official’s speech only be guaranteed protection under the First Amendment if he speaks in his capacity as a private citizen and not under his public duty?


(Kennedy, J.) Yes. Speech by a public official can only be guaranteed freedom under the First Amendment if he speaks as a private individual and not in the course of his public duties. When their speech is made as a result of engaging in or as a part of performing their public responsibilities, the officials are not treated as citizens as far as freedom of speech goes, so that their freedom of speech is constrained by the employer’s interests. Ceballos’ employers took justifiable action against him based on his cooperation with the defense in court, because this speech was made as part of his official duties.


The Supreme Court of the United States held that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, such employees are not speaking as private citizens for First Amendment purposes. Thus, the First Amendment does not prohibit managerial discipline of such employees for such speech. In the case at bar, the Court ruled that Ceballos’ allegation of unconstitutional retaliation failed because he had spoken not as a private citizen, but pursuant to his official duties as a prosecutor fulfilling a responsibility to advise his supervisor about how best to proceed with a pending case. The Court reversed the judgment.

  • Advocates: Bonnie I. Robin-Vergeer argued the cause for Respondent Dan Himmelfarb argued the cause for Petitioners Cindy S. Lee argued the cause for Petitioners Edwin S. Kneedler
  • Petitioner: Gil Garcetti et al.
  • Respondent: Richard Ceballos
  • DECIDED BY:Roberts Court
  • Location: –
Citation: 547 US 410 (2006)
Granted: Feb 28, 2005
ReArgued: Mar 21, 2006
Decided: May 30, 2006
Garcetti v. Ceballos Case Brief