Waters v. Churchill

LOCATION:Jackson Circuit Court

DOCKET NO.: 92-1450
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1993-1994)

CITATION: 511 US 661 (1994)
ARGUED: Dec 01, 1993
DECIDED: May 31, 1994

Facts of the case

A public hospital fired an obstetrics nurse, Cheryl Churchill, for insubordination after she allegedly complained about her superiors to a nurse trainee during a dinner break in the hospital’s obstetrics unit. Churchill claimed that the hospital fired her because she opposed its policy of nurse cross-training and said it was leaving certain units understaffed.


Was Churchill’s firing impermissible under the First Amendment?

Media for Waters v. Churchill

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 01, 1993 in Waters v. Churchill

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 31, 1994 in Waters v. Churchill

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinions of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

The first is No. 92-1450, Waters versus Churchill.

The case comes to us on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The petitioners fired respondent, Churchill, because of things she said to a fellow employee.

The petitioners claimed that, as reported to them, Churchill’s statements were disruptive and were not on a matter of public concern.

Churchill, on the other hand, said that in reality her statements were not disruptive and dealt with a matter of public concern which would make them protected by the First Amendment under the doctrine of Connick versus Myers.

The District Court concluded that to determine whether a government’s employment action based on speech violates the First Amendment a court should only consider the speech as the supervisor spot it to be.

The court, therefore, granted summary judgment for petitioners.

The Court of Appeals reversed holding that the inquiry should focus on what is actually said by the employee even if the supervisors were misinformed about it.

In an opinion filed today, we vacate the judgment and remand the case.

The plurality opinion holds that the Connick test should be applied to the speech as the supervisor reasonably determined it to be and concludes that in this case, the supervisor’s determination was reasonable.

But, the plurality also concludes that Churchill should be allowed an opportunity to prove that the speech, as it was reported to petitioner, was only a pretext and that the real reason for her discharge was other statements she made earlier, statements that might have been protected by the First Amendment.

The opinion is joined by four members of the court.

Justice Souter who has joined the opinion has also filed a concurring opinion; Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment which Justices Kennedy and Thomas have joined; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Blackmun has joined.