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Speaking your mind is not cause for termination

by | May 31, 2017 | Others

First Amendment rights of employees upheld in recent verdicts 

Despite very different circumstances, there was an important common thread in two recent lawsuits for wrongful termination. In both cases juries took government agencies to task for firing public employees (at least in part) for speaking their mind.

There are limits to free speech in the workplace (as elsewhere), but employees cannot be silenced simply because the employer disapproves of their commentary. These two cases were key victories for employment rights and the First Amendment.

Facebook posts are not grounds to be fired

A city employee in Charlotte, North Carolina, was fired in 2014 after she posted a comment on Facebook in the aftermath of the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Although Crystal Eschert posted only to her Facebook friends, the comments were eventually forwarded to her superiors in the fire department and City Hall. Eschert was fired on the shaky basis that her racially tinged commentary would make it hard to do her job as a fire investigator. A jury unanimously concluded that her comments – however politically incorrect — were free speech unrelated to her position or the performance of her duties. Her lawyers also argued that the Facebook post was thinly veiled whistleblower retaliation for complaints Eschert had lodged about building code violations. The jury recently awarded her $1.5 million in damages for wrongful dismissal.

Feedback and dissent are not grounds to be fired

The University of Iowa will pay millions of dollars to a former administrator who suffered retaliation after she denounced the termination of a coach (who is also her long-time partner). Jane Meyer sued the university in state and federal court for gender discrimination and violation of her First Amendment rights.

In 2014, after serving 13 years in the Athletics Department, Meyer complained in a memo to the (male) athletic director about his mistreatment of women. Specifically, she decried his decision months earlier to fire the women’s field hockey coach, Tracey Griesbaum. Within days of the critical feedback, Meyer was transferred to Facilities Management. The university’s general counsel cited an anticipated lawsuit by Griesbaum in its justification for the reassignment. She was later transferred to another position which was subsequently eliminated within a few months — all the earmarks of an orchestrated, retaliatory firing.

Fast forward to May 2017. The university has agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle three lawsuits, including a jury award of $1.43 in favor of Meyer earlier in the month and a separate settlement to her partner. The jury found that the school had engaged in discrimination and retaliation.

Speak up for your rights

You do not leave your constitutional rights in the employee parking lot. The ability to speak your mind is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, as long as it does not rise to insubordination, defamation or other actionable speech. If you were fired, demoted or otherwise suffered backlash as a government employee for exercising free speech, you have specific rights under state and federal laws. Contact an attorney who practices in employment law.

Sources:  The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)