Federal appeals panel reinstates former library worker’s retaliation suit

Thursday, August 24, 2000

A former library employee, fired for speaking out against the lack of
safety in a Louisiana parish’s public library system, has had her First
Amendment retaliation suit reinstated by a federal appeals court.

Donna Kennedy, who served as a supervisor in technical services, wrote
a letter to the Tangipahoa Parish Library Board in October 1997, urging the
board to implement greater security measures. Kennedy wrote her letter shortly
after a homeless man raped a library employee who was working in a branch
library by herself.

Kennedy wrote: “It is my humble opinion that what happened at the
Independence Branch on October 15, 1997 cannot be downplayed. This event must
be addressed and steps taken to prevent a similar act.”

Shortly after writing the letter, Kennedy was demoted and later fired
by her supervisor Pat Sledge.

Kennedy sued the library board and Sledge in federal court in March
1998, contending that her free-speech rights had been violated.

In February 1999, a federal district court granted the library board
summary judgment and dismissed her complaint. The lower court determined that
Kennedy’s letter did not address a matter of public concern.

Public employees alleging a violation of their First Amendment rights
must show that the disputed speech was on a matter of public concern and that
its value outweighs the employer’s interest in an efficient workplace.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals reinstated Kennedy’s lawsuit in Kennedy v.
Tangipahoa Parish Library Board of Control

The library board had argued that Kennedy spoke more as an employee
than a citizen when she wrote the letter. Therefore, her letter addressed a
matter of private, rather than public, concern, the board contended.

The appeals panel, however, rejected this argument.

“With respect to content, any arguments that Kennedy’s speech did not
involve a matter of public concern are not well taken,” the panel wrote in its
Aug. 15 opinion. “Speech that potentially affects public safety relates to the
public concern.”

The appeals court panel also noted that “Kennedy did not write the
letter in the context of an employer-employee dispute.”

The library board also had argued that the court should dismiss the
lawsuit because any free-speech interests were trumped by the board’s interest
in an efficient workplace. However, the panel wrote that “the letter did not
disrupt any working relationships necessary for the Library’s efficient
functioning.” The panel also noted that the letter was not hostile in its

The appeals court also reinstated Kennedy’s claims against Sledge. The
lower court had ruled that Sledge was entitled to qualified immunity — a
legal rule that protects government officials from lawsuits unless they violate
clearly established constitutional rights.

The appeals panel ruled that at this early stage of the litigation,
there was a sufficient factual dispute as to whether Sledge acted

Attorneys on both sides of the case were out of the office and
unavailable for comment.

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