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A government employee does not surrender all of her First Amendment rights at her employer's doorstep and has the right to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern. This right, however, is not absolute. A governmental employer may impose certain restraints on the speech of its employees, restraints that would be unconstitutional if applied to the general public. When analyzing First Amendment claims that arise in the government workplace, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit follows an established route. As a threshold matter, the court must determine whether the employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern. If so, then the court must balance the interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of concern and the interest of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees. If the balance weighs in favor of the employee, it must then be determined whether the protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse action against the plaintiff.
Five Bristol County Massachusetts correctional officers were suspended from their jobs by Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. Claiming that the sheriff's actions were in retaliation for their First Amendment activities, they sued pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in addition to bringing various claims under state law. A jury found Hodgson liable in his official capacity on the § 1983 claims, found against him on some of the state law claims, and awarded a total of $ 17,980 in compensatory damages. On appeal, the sheriff pressed four primary arguments: first, the district court erred in concluding as a matter of law that the First Amendment protected the officers' speech; second, no reasonable jury could have found that two officers were punished in retaliation for their exercise of First Amendment rights; third, the jury's 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 individual capacity findings in favor of the sheriff were inconsistent with the findings in favor of one officer on his claim under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA), Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, §§ 11H and 11I, and in favor of three officers on intentional interference claims; and fourth, the district court erred in instructing the jury regarding the First Amendment claims.
Did the district court err in concluding as a matter of law that the First Amendment protected the officers' speech?
The court determined that the speech was protected by the First Amendment. Not only did the officers' speech involve union activity in general, but referred to a picket to publicize the sheriff's alleged unfair treatment of correctional officers. There was ample evidence that the sheriff suspended the officers not out of a legitimate concern that their speech compromised safety at the correctional facilities but because of their pro-union activity.