In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the United States Supreme Court described a two-step inquiry into whether a public employee’s speech is entitled to protection: The first step requires determining whether an employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern. If the answer is no, the employee has no First Amendment cause of action based on his or her employer’s reaction to the speech. If the answer is yes, then the possibility of a First Amendment claim arises. The question becomes whether the relevant government entity had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the general public. In describing the first step in this inquiry, Garcetti distinguished between employee speech and citizen speech. Whereas speech as a citizen may trigger protection, the Court held that when 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.
Petitioner former employee filed an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, alleging that respondent community college president violated the employee's First Amendment rights when he fired the employee from his job. The district court dismissed the action and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. The former employee sued the president of a community college, alleging that the president violated the employee's First Amendment rights when he fired the employee after he investigated a state legislator who was employed by the college and testified as a witness in two prosecutions the U.S. Government initiated against the legislator, alleging that she committed mail fraud and theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. The Eleventh Circuit found that the former employee's testimony was not protected by the First Amendment because he was a public employee and did not speak as a citizen when he testified at the legislator's trials, and that the president was entitled to qualified immunity.
Was the community college president entitled to qualified immunity?
Although the Supreme Court agreed that the president was entitled to qualified immunity, it reversed the Eleventh Circuit's judgment that testimony the employee gave was not protected by the First Amendment. The case had to be remanded, however, because the president retired while the case was on appeal and the Eleventh Circuit did not address whether the president's successor could be ordered to reinstate the employee.
The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's judgment that testimony the employee gave in the legislator's trial was not protected by the First Amendment, affirmed the Eleventh Circuit's judgment that the former president was entitled to qualified immunity, and remanded the case. 9-0 Decision; 1 concurrence.