6th Circuit properly discerns matter of public concern

Friday, May 18, 2012

One of the defining issues in a public-employee First Amendment case is whether the employee spoke on a matter of public importance or merely engaged in a private grievance. The U.S. Supreme Court for many years has said that in order to have a valid free-speech claim, a public employee must speak on a “matter of public concern.”

A recent decision by a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shows the continued importance of this public-private distinction and how it can affect litigation. In Mosholder v. Barnhardt, a prison employee in Lapeer, Mich., challenged her transfer from a school officer to a general corrections officer position as retaliatory. She alleged that officials transferred her in part because of a letter she wrote to several state representatives and senators.

In the letter, Mosholder objected to prison officials’ failure to maintain inmate discipline at a rap contest. She alleged that many inmates frequently flashed gang signs at the event and that prison officials ignored “a very volatile situation.” Her letter also claimed the prison suffered from an overall lack of discipline.

Mosholder sued prison officials, alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights. Originally, a lower court denied the officials’ motion for summary judgment in February 2010, but then in November 2010 granted the officials’ motion, finding that Mosholder had engaged in private speech not deserving of First Amendment protection.

Fortunately, the 6th Circuit reversed the lower court in its decision, recognizing that Mosholder’s letter clearly addressed issues  of public importance.

“Mosholder disagreed with the operation of an institution charged with protecting the public,” the appeals court wrote.

Yes, Mosholder had a private interest in writing the letter; the panel acknowledged that she was “almost certainly motivated, at least in part, by personal disagreement” with prison administrators. But that doesn’t mean her letter didn’t address important public issues or was merely a standard employee grievance. She raised the vital issue of public safety in a public institution.

The 6th Circuit recognized this: “A public concern/private interest analysis does not require that a communication be utterly bereft of private observations or even expressions of private interest.”

The 6th Circuit made the right call in finding that the public employee’s speech addressed matters of public concern.

Tags: , , ,