Quick look at Garcetti v. Ceballos

Thursday, June 1, 2006


Case name: Garcetti v. Ceballos


Background: Deputy Los Angeles District Attorney Richard Ceballos, responding to a complaint from a defense attorney, discovered inaccuracies in an affidavit by a deputy sheriff that was part of a pending case. Ceballos recommended to superiors that the case be dismissed, but they decided to proceed. He was eventually called as a witness by the defense. After the trial, Ceballos claimed he was denied promotion and punished with “freeway therapy” by being assigned to a remote office with a long commute. He filed suit against then-D.A. Gil Garcetti, claiming that his First Amendment rights were violated, and won before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court ruled that Ceballos deserved First Amendment protection, because his speech was about a matter of public concern.


Ruling: By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that because Ceballos’ speech was pursuant to his official duties, it was not protected by the First Amendment. As a result, the Constitution did not insulate him from being disciplined by his employer. The Court said government employees still have First Amendment rights as citizens, however, and when they speak in that capacity on matters of public concern, they can be restricted only to the extent necessary for the efficient operation of the government employer.


Verbatim: “Government employers, like private employers, need a significant degree of control over their employees’ words and actions; without it, there would be little chance for the efficient provision of public services. … [W]hen public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline … . Refusing to recognize First Amendment claims based on government employees’ work product does not prevent them from participating in public debate.”


Line-up: Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, Jr. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented.


First Amendment impact: Whenever the Court places an entire category of speech outside the protection of the First Amendment, as it did in this decision, it is significant. But the impact of that determination is difficult to predict. If nothing else, it is likely to make employee-retaliation lawsuits more difficult to pursue than before. But a wave of litigation will also probably focus on deciding what speech is within or outside of employees’ job descriptions, and when an employee is acting as a citizen. Whistleblower-protection laws that insulate government employees from retaliation are not affected by the ruling, the Court said, and already some members of Congress are talking about strengthening the laws to blunt the effect of the ruling. For some government employees — lawyers, university professors and public school teachers, for example — the Court also said other professional or constitutional rules and obligations might protect their actions even now when the First Amendment is no longer a shield.