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Law School Case Brief

Rankin v. McPherson - 483 U.S. 378, 107 S. Ct. 2891 (1987)


The determination whether a public employer has properly discharged an employee for engaging in speech requires a balance between the interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees. This balancing is necessary in order to accommodate the dual role of the public employer as a provider of public services and as a government entity operating under the constraints of U.S Const. amend. I. On the one hand, public employers are employers, concerned with the efficient function of their operations; review of every personnel decision made by a public employer could, in the long run, hamper the performance of public functions. On the other hand, the threat of dismissal from public employment is a potent means of inhibiting speech. 


Plaintiff Ardith McPherson, a data-entry employee in a county constable's office, was discharged for remarking to a co-worker, after hearing of an attempt on the President's life, "if they go for him again, I hope they get him." McPherson was not a commissioned peace officer, did not wear a uniform, was not authorized to make arrests or permitted to carry a gun, and was not brought by virtue of her job into contact with the public. Her duties were purely clerical, were limited solely to the civil process function of the constable's office, and did not involve her in the office's minimal law enforcement activity. Her statement was made during a private conversation in a room not readily accessible to the public. Defendant Constable Rankin fired McPherson because of the statement. She then brought suit in the federal district court under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, alleging that her discharge violated her First Amendment right to free speech under color of state law. After a hearing, the district court granted summary judgment to Constable Rankin, holding that McPherson's speech was unprotected and that her discharge was therefore proper. On McPherson's appeal, the appellate court vacated and remanded for trial on the ground that substantial issues of material fact regarding the context in which the statement was made precluded the entry of summary judgment. On remand, the district court held another hearing and ruled once again, this time from the bench, that the statements were not protected speech. Again, the appellate court reversed, ultimately holding that McPherson's remark addressed a matter of public concern and weighed Constable Rankin's interest against the speech. The court remanded the case for determination of an appropriate remedy. Constable Rankin was granted a writ of certiorari.


Did Constable Rankin’s interest in discharging McPherson outweigh McPherson's rights under the First Amendment because of McPherson's position in the office and the nature of her statement?




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the appellate court's decision. The Court weighed the speech, which was clearly a matter of public concern, against Constable Rankin's interest in maintaining discipline in the workplace. The Court concluded that the termination was improper given the function of the agency, McPherson's position in the office, and the nature of her statement.

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