Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘First Amendment’

SCOTUS Is on the Verge of Decimating Public-Sector Unions—But Workers Can Still Fight Back

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, the case that will likely turn the entire public sector labor movement into a “right-to-work” zone. Like a lazy Hollywood remake, the case has all the big money behind it that last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA did, with none of the creativity.

In Friedrichs, the plaintiffs argued that interactions between public sector unions and government employers are inherently political. Therefore, the argument went, mandatory agency fees to reimburse the union for the expenses of representation and bargaining were forced political speech, violating employees’ purported First Amendment right to not pay dues.

The case ended in a 4-4 deadlock in March 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who had appeared poised to vote against the unions’ interests.

Much like Friedrichs, the Janus case has rocketed through the federal courts. The National Right to Work Foundation, which represents the plaintiffs, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case in early June. All briefs will likely be submitted by mid-January 2018, meaning SCOTUS could hold hearings almost exactly a year to the date that the Court last heard the same arguments.

The defendants may argue for procedural delays, which could potentially kick the decision into the following court term in 2018-2019. And it’s possible that in the meantime Justice Anthony Kennedy could die of a heart attack, or Sam Alito could forget to look both ways while crossing First St. and get run over by a bus. And the Democrats might take back the Senate next year, preventing the Trump administration from naming any more conservatives to the Court.

That’s the kind of magical thinking we’re left with, because the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is clearly determined to tilt the power of the country in favor of big business and against unions for at least a generation, and they care little about how just or fair their decisions appear to the public.

“Right to work” laws, currently on the books in 27 states, strip the requirement that union members pay union dues. Unions claim this creates a “free rider” problem, allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of union membership without contributing a dime. This deprives unions of crucial funding, but also—and this is no small consideration for the right-wing—every union family that drops their membership becomes one less door that union members can knock come election season.

Most national unions have been preparing for this eventuality since the first time the Roberts court took up the issue of public sector union fees in 2014’s Harris Vs. Quinncase. (If you’re keeping score, yes, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court have spent three years in a row trying to break the backs of unions).

Much of this preparation has focused on making sure that unions have a shop steward in every department and that every new hire is asked by a living breathing human being to actually join the union. But, as I wrote earlier this month, the bigger threat once workers have the right to evade union fees is the direct mail and phone-banking campaign that is already being run by Koch Brother-funded “think tanks” to encourage workers to drop their union membership and “give yourself a raise.”

As I wrote then, “The slick ‘give yourself a raise’ pamphlets will do the most damage in places where members think of the union as simply a headquarters building downtown. … But where members are involved in formulating demands and participating in protest actions, they find the true value and power of being in a union. That power—the power of an active and involved membership—is what the right-wing most fears, and is doing everything in its power to stop.”

There is a certain irony in conservatives applying the First Amendment to collective bargaining, a principle that conservative jurists have studiously avoided for two centuries. If every interaction that a union has with the government is a matter of speech, then we have a stronger argument for instituting a Bill of Rights for labor to protect workers and their right to demand fair treatment on the job.

Unions are already oppressively regulated. They are told by the National Labor Relations Board whom they can picket, when they may march and what they might say on a flyer. And they face steep fines if they disobey. Workers are forced to attend endless hours of anti-union presentations before a union election with no right to respond or boycott.

If every interaction the government has with a union is a matter of political speech—as a ruling in favor of Janus would imply—unions must respond by forcefully arguing that the rules of the system have been unfairly holding workers back, violating of our rights to free speech, due process and equal protection.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

Supreme Court takes up case that will devastate public sector unions

Friday, September 29th, 2017

In what is all but certain to be a terrible blow to organized labor, the Supreme Court announced on Thursday that it will hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case seeking to defund public sector unions. The case presents an issue that was recently before the Court, and where the justices split 4-4 along party lines.

Now that Neil Gorsuch occupies the seat that Senate Republicans held open for more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, he holds the fifth vote to deliver a staggering blow to the union movement.

The issue in Janus involves what are sometimes referred to as “agency fees” or “fair share fees.” As ThinkProgress explained when this issue was last before the Court:

Unions are required by law to bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop, even if those workers opt not to join the union. As such, non-members receive the same higher wages (one study found that workers in unionized shops enjoy a wage premium of nearly 12 percent) and benefits enjoyed by their coworkers who belong to the union.

Absent something else, this arrangement would create a free-rider problem, because individual workers have little incentive to join the union if they know they will get all the benefits of unionizing regardless of whether they reimburse the union for its costs. Eventually, unions risk becoming starved for funds and collapsing, causing the workers once represented by a union to lose the benefits of collective bargaining.

To prevent this free-rider problem, union contracts often include a provision requiring non-members to pay agency fees.

The plaintiff in Janus asks the Supreme Court to declare these agency fees unconstitutional, at least in contracts involving public sector unions, under what can charitably be described as an aggressive reading of the First Amendment. Indeed, prior to his death, even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia sometimes appeared skeptical of the plaintiff’s legal theory (although he did join an opinionthat embraced much of it).

With Gorsuch on the bench, however, there is little suspense regarding how Janus will come down. Unions will almost certainly be severely weakened by this decision. And, as a benefit to the Supreme Court’s increasingly partisan majority, that will also weaken a key arm of the Democratic party’s political infrastructure, making it more likely that the Court will remain in Republican hands.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Employees are not fully protected by the First Amendment

Monday, August 21st, 2017

Private employment is at will. The most productive or most loyal worker is subject to termination at any time. Employers are not required to show cause or pay severance. The only exception is getting fired for a discriminatory reason that violates state or federal law.

Recent developments have people wondering if they can be fired for speaking their mind or expressing political views, especially off the clock and away from work. In many cases, the answer is yes, when “free speech” activities reflect poorly on the company or violate company policy or employment agreements.

What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas

In the wake of the protests and counterprotests in Charlottesville, Virginia, some attendees were “outed” on social media and subsequently fired by their employers. Companies quickly cut ties with employees photographed in Ku Klux Klan or Nazi regalia.

But what about carrying a Confederate flag or a tiki torch to protest removal of a statute? Or conversely, what about antifa or Black Lives Matter supporters depicted in clashes with alt-right marchers?

Courts have generally upheld the right of private employers to terminate employees for conduct in their private lives that is detrimental to the company’s goodwill, such as drunken debauchery or photo ops with hate groups.

For public employees, the standard is higher – does the private conduct compromise the ability of the employee or the agency to serve the public?

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you

Employees who badmouth their employers, especially on Facebook or Twitter, should not be surprised to get pink slips. Whistleblowers are protected from retaliation for reporting criminal activity or rights violations, but within limits.

In a recent case in Minnesota, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the firing of six Jimmy John’s employees who complained about the company’s lack of sick leave. Rather than discussing labor law, which is protected speech, they insinuated via posters and press releases that the company’s sandwiches might be tainted by workers with contagious illness.

As the fired workers were involved in a unionization effort, the National Labor Relations Board and a three-judge appeals panel ruled that the firings were essentially retaliation. The full 8th Circuit appeals court disagreed, reinforcing that employees do not have a First Amendment right to disparage their employer’s products or services.

On the other hand, some experts say James Damore may have grounds for wrongful termination after Google fired him for posting a “manifesto” about gender diversity. Despite questionable science – asserting women are biologically more “neurotic” than men – his opinion was posted on an internal forum that Google created to discuss workplace issues.

Google asserts that Damore was let go because his incendiary treatise was derogatory and discriminatory, in violation of company policy and perhaps federal law. Damore has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, saying that he acted within his rights to discuss his working environment and his employer’s discriminatory practices.

Discrimination is not a business reason

The First Amendment is a smaller shield within the context of employment. Employers have some latitude to separate from employees for objectionable speech. But terminations cannot be based on a worker’s race, national origin, gender or religion.

These cases are always dependent on legal precedent, new interpretations, enforcement priorities or recent changes in the law itself. If you believe an employer has unfairly punished or fired you for protected speech, an employment law attorney can explore your legal remedies.

This blog was originally published by Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on August 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

Want To Speak Out About Politics at Work? Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know.

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

In the past several months, there’s been a noted uptick in political speech at work. That speech has often made national news, from Sally Yates’ dismissal as interim attorney general to IBM workers organizing against their employer’s support of Donald Trump. In the early days of the Trump administration, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s strike against the Muslim ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport stood out as an impressive act of resistance and solidarity. And even before Trump’s election, Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, sparked a national discussion when he refused to stand during the national anthem in protest of racism against African-Americans and other people of color.

Protests against the administration are building quickly, with diverse groups organizing mass protests against the administration’s policies. This month, on May Day—otherwise known as International Workers’ Day—thousands of workers across the country took to the streets to challenge Trump’s draconian and unconstitutional immigration policies. In all likelihood, political activity at work will only increase throughout the Trump administration, all of which begs the question: How protected are workers who talk politics on the job?

As it turns out, not very, at least legally. Though more than 40 percent of participants in a 2014 YouGov poll believed that the First Amendment protected them from retaliation for their workplace political speech, the truth is that workers have, at best, a patchwork of rights to talk politics at work.

Most private sector workers have no Constitutional protections to engage in political speech at work. However, they do have rights as workers. (Government workers have some limited First Amendment rights because the First Amendment applies to government action, but those rights aren’t always consistently defined.)

Though it can be difficult to navigate the maze of laws that regulates employment, there are some simple things to keep in mind that can help private sector employees ensure they have maximum protection at work. These tips are not foolproof ways to protect your job, but they provide some cover in the face of the risks and challenges ahead. Of course, you’re safest keeping your protests outside of work, but building the resistance against Trump will require shop floor leaders to be vocal and visible. While speaking out at work is inherently risky, the rewards measured in collective strength and tangible gains cannot be overestimated.

Step 1: Bring a buddy

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the main law governing relations between workers and employers in the private sector, is unique: It mostly protects groups, not individuals. This means that whenever you stand up to improve the conditions at your workplace with at least one other worker, you are engaging in “protected concerted activity” under the NLRA, and you can’t lawfully be fired or disciplined for that activity. Solidarity at work is protected under federal law. This protection applies to regular workplace complaints and grievances—for instance, joining with your coworkers to form a union or ask for a wage increase—but can also apply to political activity.

Usually, even talking to coworkers about your problems at work is “protected concerted activity.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently broadened the meaning of the term in a 2014 case. In that case, the NLRB held that a worker who talked to her coworkers about serving as witnesses in her individual sexual harassment complaint was protected under the NLRA because she was enlisting coworkers in her aid. This suggests that a worker can invoke the protections of the NLRA just by talking with coworkers.

It’s always a good idea to act with at least one other coworker. The best defense is building strong ties with coworkers and the community. The more the boss fears pushback, the less likely he is to retaliate. At the very least, make sure to talk to a coworker before engaging in any action at work, political or otherwise, to bring that action under the NLRA’s protection. But keep in mind that not all political protest is protected—as Step 2 explains.

Step 2: If you’re talking or protesting politics, find ways to tie your protest to issues your employer can control

If you decide to engage in political activity at work, the most important action you can take to protect yourself and your coworkers is to tie your speech or protest to an “employment related concern.” With some limited exceptions, the NLRA protects you from discipline for discussing anything having to do with your pay, occupational safety, the policies at your job, and other terms and conditions of employment with coworkers and third parties, whether the news media or a government agency. In a famous labor law case from 1962, NLRB v. Washington Aluminum, the Supreme Court found that labor law protected a group of workers who spontaneously walked off the job because the shop was too cold to work, though there was a rule against leaving work without the supervisor’s permission and the employees didn’t plan or know they were engaging in a workplace action.

Problems that your employer can’t affect or control are not employment related. For example, in 2006, hundreds of workers were terminated for walking off the job to join massive protests against anti-immigrant legislation proposed in Congress. In response to the terminations, the NLRB came up with some guidelines for political activity. While the protests were found to have been done for “mutual aid and protection”—workers standing together in solidarity—walking off the job against employer rules was unprotected, since the employers could not control immigration policy.

Sometimes an employer does have power over a government policy—for instance, if the employer is actively involved in lobbying over that policy, like in a recent case where taxi drivers protested against their employer, a Las Vegas cab company, for lobbying for more medallions, which would put more drivers on the road and reduce their pay. Still, the takeaway is that you should always try to make sure your protest is about a tangible workplace policy. For instance, if you want to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies, you could center your protest around a demand that the employer not conduct voluntary I-9 audits.

One last thing to remember is that if an employer has a rule that limits political speech at work, it has to be neutral on its face and neutrally applied. If you are fired for violating an employer attendance policy to attend a rally against Trump’s immigration policies, but another coworker who also violated the attendance policy to attend a Trump rally is unscathed, then the boss has violated the law by failing to apply work rules neutrally and you should contact an attorney or the NLRB to report the violation.

Step 3: Build solidarity at work and in the community

Nothing protects you more than the support and solidarity of your coworkers and community. Collective action is a time-honored and battle-tested tactic. The more people support you, the more the boss will be afraid to retaliate against you. In the Fight for $15 campaign, organizers perfected the art of the “walk back.” After one of their now famous strike days, community members, including clergy and local politicians, would walk striking worker back to fast food restaurants in a show of community power. Build relationships at work and in your community to prepare for the fight ahead. Nothing is stronger than people power.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Leo Gertner is a labor lawyer in Washington, D.C., who previously worked as a grievance representative for janitors in Boston. Sam Wheeler is a Pennsylvania labor lawyer who has previously worked in electoral politics and in the legal departments of several national unions.

How the Friedrichs v. Calif. Teachers Association SCOTUS Case Could Actually Be a Boon for Unions

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

in these timesAs unions file their legal briefs in the epic Friedrichs vs. CTA anti-union Supreme Court case, one clever legal scholar argues that Friedrichs is “an unexpected tool for labor.”

University of Chicago Teaching Fellow Heather Whitney’s forthcoming paper in the NYU Journal of Law and Liberty makes a compelling case that an adverse decision in Friedrichs would hand unions a first amendment argument to refuse to represent non-members. And, as I have argued, that is a roadmap to union competition at workplaces, competing demands on individual employers and the end of contractual no-strike agreements.

Chaos, in other words—and just the sort of chaos that this attack on unions deserves in response.

Friedrichs and labor’s response

The First Amendment is at the heart of the Friedrichs case. It is a right-wing argument that public sector employers (in other words, the government) violate individuals’ First amendment rights by compelling employees, through contracts negotiated with unions, to pay a fee to a union. Currently, unions that are certified to represent a group of employees in a bargaining unit are legally compelled to represent all of the employees in that unit. That means not just bargaining on their behalf, but expending significant resources on grievances, meetings, communications and everything else that goes into running a union.

But union membership, including the payment of dues, is completely voluntary. That’s why unions negotiate agency fees into contracts. These fees are calculated through complicated formulas to only represent the true cost of bargaining representation. Agency fees do not pay for things like political activity (unions usually have separate voluntary political funds).

But the Friedrichs case argues that any interaction that a union has with the government, including bargaining, is inherently political. Agency fees, therefore, are compelled political activity.

This ridiculous argument is only before the Supreme Court now because Justice Samuel Alito inserted the issue into last year’s otherwise unrelated Harris Vs. Quinn case. That case was only a partial defeat for unions, as Alito lacked the fifth vote to totally do away with agency fee in the public sector. In his written decision, Alito basically solicited for someone to bring a case with exactly Friedrichs’ set of facts, and it has raced up to the Supreme Court. This is the stuff of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Unions have mounted an excellent legal case, backed up by a broad array of supporting briefs. A ruling against the unions would reverse a 37-year-old precedent. The Supreme Court is supposed to be guided by the principal of stare decisis, which is essentially to let long-settled precedent stand. And finally, the case will be decided in the middle of a presidential election that is already turning on questions of inequality and workers rights. In his handling of the Obamacare and gay marriage cases, Chief Justice Roberts has shown that he does seem to care about his legacy. Would he support such a nakedly partisan political move by his Court in this election cycle?

So, on the facts, on the law and on the politics, unions really ought to win this case. And, to be clear, agency fee and exclusive representation are worth defending. They create the conditions for tremendous worker power at workplaces that have both.

But if unions lose agency fee, then exclusive representation no longer makes sense. This is not simply because of the free-rider problem that will drain union resources. It is because exclusive representation is essential to labor peace, and a Friedrichs ruling that guts union rights is the clearest signal that the billionaire class does not want—nor does it deserve—any kind of peace.

Labor’s First Amendment rights

If the Supreme Court rules that every interaction that a union has with its government employer is inherently political, Heather Whitney argues in her article, then that would open the door to unions claiming their own First Amendment right—to choose who they represent. In other words, if agency fee is compelled speech, then the duty of exclusive representation imposed on unions is also compelled speech.

Imagine a group of registered nurses at a public hospital who want to bargain for much larger raises than the rest of the members of the bargaining unit. Or imagine a group of young workers who want to bargain away pensions in exchange for larger salaries in the here and now. (Forget for the moment that both scenarios are just bad unionism.) Once these contract demands are considered by the Court to be political speech, then the fact that these workers are compelled by the government to represent workers who disagree with them, and who could outvote them, is a violation of their First Amendment rights!

I’ll also point out that unions’ rights to freely engage in actual political speech is already impeded by the duties of exclusive representation. Unions are politically cautious and loathe to wade into non-economic controversies for fear of alienating a segment of their bargaining unit. For instance, most unions were slow to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for fear of alienating bargaining unit members who were veterans or who had children in the military. Even in a so-called “Right to Work” state, those people may not be members but they could still express their displeasure by voting to decertify the union. Does that not coerce unions into more limited political activity?

This is not an abstraction. The day after the Friedrichs decision, if the Court kills agency fee by making all public sector union work “political,” does anybody doubt that the first time a non-member walks into a union office with a grievance that she will be told, “Join the union or get the hell out of our office?” And then we’ll be off to the races with a case that will go to the Supreme Court to revisit exclusive representation in the public sector without agency fee.

Then, the only question would be whether the government has a “compelling interest in requiring unions to negotiate and grieve their nonmembers’ complaints without receiving just compensation.” And here scholarship would demonstrate that it has been the employers’ preference to deal with one exclusive representative because it is easier for them, and, as Whitney writes, “convenience is no response to whether exclusive representation is properly tailored to the government’s legitimate interest.”

Breaking the peace

So far, we’re just talking about public sector unions because having the government as employer, Alito’s right-wing conspirators argue, converts all of the activities of those unions into inherently political acts. But if thisFriedrichs logic takes hold, then arguably having the government—in the form of the National Labor Relations Board—compel unions to represent workers they would choose not to (and perhaps vice versa) might become unconstitutional as well.

Currently, the NLRB will only certify unions as exclusive representatives of all of the workers in a bargaining unit, and only if the union can win a majority vote. This is often an insurmountable threshold for unions to reach in the face of intense employer opposition. In his 2005 book The Blue Eagle at Work,  law professor and labor law expert Charles J. Morris documented that in its early history the NLRB used to certify minority unions as the bargaining agent for their members only. Morris argued that this pathway was still technically open to unions to gain a foothold at a workplace and legally compel an employer to recognize a non-majority union.

The modern NLRB has dodged efforts by unions to get an advisory ruling on Morris’ theory. But if the Friedrichslogic holds, private sector unions may have a First Amendment challenge to the NLRB’s continued refusal to grant certifications for just the members they choose to represent.

And that, if you’ll follow me down this rabbit hole, could spell the end of contractual no-strike clauses. They would simply be unenforceable in an environment of competing, non-exclusive, members-only unions. Workers would simply drop their union memberships to participate in wildcat job actions. Or else join new workplace organizations that have not signed agreements committing to labor peace.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any fantasy of some huge wave of potential strike actions that would occur tomorrow if only the enraged working class would stop being “repressed” by current union leadership and our current collective bargaining agreements. But these no-strike clauses go well beyond total shutdowns of production to include all manner or slow-downs, work-to-rule and refusal to carry out selective duties.

Any experienced union rep reading this can recall at least one incident of having to talk his members off a ledge—out of refusing a new duty or clocking out for lunch at the same time. These actions would be concerted protected activity in a non-union workplace, but under a “no-strike” contract could result in all participants legally getting fired. How the hell are we supposed to get workers who don’t enjoy union protection fired up about taking action against their bosses, when their unionized peers can’t set any kind of example in terms of actually enjoying their supposed protections?

It’s funny that the First Amendment could make this possible. Union rights in this country are not constitutionally rooted in the First Amendment, but in Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce—which is one of the reasons that our labor laws make no damn sense. So, yes, Friedrichs could be a useful tool for labor by finally connecting our work to our rights of free speech and free assembly.

But if you’ve followed me down this rabbit hole and are starting to get a little excited about a possible post-Friedrichs world, let me give you an “on the other hand.” Heather Whitney’s First Amendment argument for ending the duty of exclusive representation would come before a Court that would not be weighing it against a long-established precedent as Roberts’ Court is considering Freidrichs. It will be weighing the argument against a very recent Court decision.

If labor successfully causes enough chaos of the nature I’m driving at—or even poses a credible threat to do so—don’t be surprised if the Supremes try to put the lid back on Alito’s can of worms.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on December 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

A “Like” is a Like, Court Says, and is Protected Free Speech

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

portrait-schwartzIn a closely watched case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday that a “Like” on Facebook is a form of speech that is protected under the First Amendment.

In doing so, it kept alive a lawsuit brought by an employee who claims he was fired for supporting an political candidate who was running against his boss.  The WSJ Law Blog has some additional details and you can download the decision here.

The Court said that a “like” is the internet equivalent of a candidate yard sign:

 In sum, liking a political candidate’s campaign pagecommunicates the user’s approval of the candidate and supportsthe campaign by associating the user with it. In this way, itis the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign inone’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held issubstantive speech

While the case arises in Virginia, it could have some important implications to employers in Connecticut, as I commented in a Law360 article (registration required) late yesterday:

The appeals court’s conclusion that former sheriff’s deputy Daniel Carter’s “like” of a candidate challenging the incumbent for a sheriff post in Virginia was protected by the First Amendment came as no great surprise to attorneys following the case and showed that courts will treat social media communications the same as more conventional modes of self-expression, lawyers told Law360 on Wednesday.

“The court’s decision is confirming what many of us have long suspected, which is that speech on Facebook may be protected under the First Amendment,” said Shipman & Goodwin LLP partner Daniel Schwartz.

The ruling will likely have an impact in some states, including Connecticut, that protect private employees from being disciplined for exercising First Amendment rights, Schwartz said. But the decision may also shed light on how the NLRB will tackle the question of whether an employee clicking the “like” button is protected by the National Labor Relations Act, an issue pending before the labor board in a case called Triple Play Sports Bar.

Of course, the decision leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Will a “like” always be protected? What if you are “liking” a page just to track it? How do you know when a “Like” is really for liking a page?

And of course, what about other similar actions on other social networks? Is an “endorsement” on LinkedIn really anendorsementof an employee’s views? Is a retweet on Twitter a supportive role? What about a “+1? on Google+? Or a Heart on Instagram?

It can go on and on.  All these questions will continue to arise as long as social media continues its growth.

For employers, the decision confirms something I’ve preached about in our seminars: That online speech may be protected under state law or even the First Amendment under some circumstances.   Before taking action on such speech, make sure you understand the laws in play and seek local counsel if you have any concerns as well.

And, of course, if you like this post, feel free to “like” it below.  Though let’s agree that sometimes a “like” is really just something else entirely.

This article was originally printed on Connecticut Employment Law Blog on September 19, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Daniel Schwartz is an experienced employment law attorney, a Bar leader, an award-winning author, and a noted speaker. He is a partner at Shipman & Goodwin LLP.

9th Circuit: Garcetti Does Not Apply to Public University Employee's Teaching and Academic Writing

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

secunda-paulFor those of you like me that follow the development of First Amendment law in the public employee space, times have recently been depressing for employee advocates in this post-Garcetti world that we now inhabit in the United States.

Now comes a pro-employee decision (yes from the 9th Circuit) concerning the application of Garcetti to a public university professor’s teaching and writing at school.  Readers may recall that the Garcetti decision itself punted on the issue of whether the new standard – no First Amendment speech protection for public employees speaking pursuant to their official duties – also applied to the university academic setting where substantial issues of academic freedom also exist (this is less of an issue in the K-12 environment where public school teachers have less discretion in conveying the curriculum and do not generally do scholarship).

In Demers v. Austin (9th Cir. Sept. 4, 2013), the Ninth Circuit considered a case in which “a tenured associate university professor (at Washington State University]. . . alleged that university administrators retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment for distributing a short pamphlet and drafts from an in-progress book titled ‘The Ivory Tower of Babel.’” The case focuses primarily on the pamphlet, as not enough evidence was put in the record concering the book.

Judge Fletcher, writing for the unanimous panel, came to four important conclusions:

1.  Garcetti does not apply to teaching and writing on academic matters by teachers employed by      the state.  In other words, Garcetti is basically silent on this issue as mentioned above, and the 9th Circuit found that matters of academic freedom play a more prominent role in this context that requires a different legal test. (“We conclude that if applied to teaching and academic writing, Garcetti would directly conflict with the important First Amendment values previously articulated by the Supreme Court [on academic freedom elucidated in Keyishian and other cases].

2.  Instead, teaching and writing by university professors comes direclty under the Pickering balancing test, whereby the rights of the public employee to speak on matters of public concern are balanced against the employer’s right to run an efficient government service. (“We hold that academic employee speech not covered by Garcetti is protected under the First Amendment, using the analysis established in Pickering.”).

3.  So although the university professor here prepared and circulated the pamphlet pursuant to his official duties as a university professor (and thus, would normally have no First Amendment protection under Garcetti), the 9th Circuit concludes that speech was on a matter of public concern (thus satisfying the Connick test) and that there was a chance that the Pickering balancing of interests could come out in favor of the employee.  The court therefore remands on this and a few other related issues.

4.  In any event, the individual defendants in the case would not be held liable because of the unsettled nature of this area of the law.  In short, they enjoy qualified immunity.

This is not the first case finding that there is an exception to Garcetti for teaching and academic writing.  TheFourth Circuit came to a similar conclusion in the Adams public university professor case of 2011. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if this represents a growing consensus among the lower federal courts on this issue and whether this case will be subject to review en banc or by the Supreme Court.  My thought is that although en banc review is certainly possible, there is not yet enough division and consideration of this issue by other circuit courts to warrant Supreme Court review.

This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blog on September 9, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Secunda is an associate professor of  law at Marquette University Law School.  Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He co-authored the treatise Understanding Employment Law and the case book Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law.  Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media.  He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country.

The First Amendment Protects Public Employees Right to Run for Public Office: Or At Least It Should

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Public employees’ constitutional rights are important. Recent figures suggest that sixteen million Americans — more than 10 percent of the nation’s workforce — are employed by a state or local government, with another two million, approximately, employed by the federal government. With the economic downturn, even more workers are moving from the private sector to typically more secure public sector jobs. See, e.g., “Despite Downturn, Federal Workforce Grows; Stimulus Plan Expected to Increase the Ranks at State, Local Levels,” MSNBC News Report, January 31, 2009 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28952802/). Simply put, public employees are a major and growing part of our workforce. However, public employees’ rights are now vulnerable, after the recent decision in Greenwell v. Parsley, 541 F.3d 401 (6th Cir. 2008).

In Greenwell, a deputy sheriff was fired because he ran for sheriff against the incumbent. The Sixth Circuit in Kentucky held that such a firing does not implicate the First Amendment, relying on an earlier precedent from that court which said that “[t]he First Amendment does not require that an official in [an employer’s] situation nourish a viper in the nest.” Id. at 404 (citing Carver v. Dennis, 104 F.3d 847, 850-53 (6th Cir. 1997)). [1] Other circuits disagree, and rightly conclude that a public employee’s candidacy for office should be protected to at least the same degree as a public employee’s political speech. See, e.g., James v. Texas Collin County, 535 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2008); Finkelstein v. Bergna, 924 F.2d 1449 (9th Cir. 1991); Flinn v. Gordon, 775 F.2d 1551 (11th Cir. 1985); Washington v. Finlay, 664 F.2d 913 (4th Cir. 1981); Newcomb v. Brennan, 558 F.2d 825 (7th Cir. 1977); and Magill v. Lynch, 560 F.2d 22 (1st Cir. 1977).

The Greenwell plaintiff recently petitioned for the Supreme Court to overturn the 6th Circuit, in light of the 6th Circuit’s clear split with other Circuits on this issue. See Petition for Certiorari, 77 USLW 3619 (Apr 27, 2009) (No. 08-1328). The Supreme Court should grant review (certiorari) because “citizens are not deprived of fundamental rights by virtue of working for the government.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 147 (1983). Running for office is a fundamental right.

The Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563, 573, 88 S.Ct. 1731 (1968), set forth a balancing test for public employees’ First Amendment rights in the workplace. More recently, in 2006, the Supreme Court acknowledged, in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 126 S.Ct. 1951 (2006), “Many citizens do much of their talking inside their respective workplaces, and it would not serve the goal of treating public employees ‘like any member of the general public,’ [citing Pickering], to hold that all speech within the office is automatically exposed to restriction.” Garcetti, 126 S.Ct. at 1959. Greenwell seemingly eliminates the Pickering balance, reiterated recently in Garcetti.

There are four issues that warrant Supreme Court review of the Greenwell decision’s divergent holding: 1) whether a public employee may be prevented from speaking on a matter of public concern without balancing the interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern; 2) whether a public employee who communicates an intent to run for office has engaged in protected First Amendment speech; 3) whether a public employee can be fired based on the employee’s political affiliation even when that affiliation is irrelevant to the performance of the employee’s job; and 4) the depth of public employees’ First Amendment protections generally.

1. Public employees’ interests – as citizens – must be given weight.

Greenwell’s reactionary result – that the employer’s interest is all-encompassing and that the employees’ rights need not enter into the balance at all – erodes Pickering and its progeny to the point of meaninglessness. Certainly, the Supreme Court will undoubtedly find, an employee whose hostility to his employer (a public officeholder) reaches the level of insubordination, can be properly removed. See, e.g., Curran v. Cousins, 509 F.3d 36, 49 (1st Cir. 2007) (citing Stanley v. City of Dalton, Ga., 219 F.3d 1280, 1290 (11th Cir.2000)) (speech done in a vulgar, insulting, and defiant manner is entitled to less weight in the Pickering balance). But there still must be some balancing in this analysis.

2. The Court should not construe narrowly what kinds of public employees’ communications engender constitutional protection.

Contrary to Greenwell’s result, “speech on public issues occupies the ‘highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values,’ and is entitled to special protection.” Connick, 461 U.S. at 145. After Greenwell and the 2006 Garcetti decision, a public employee cannot expect protection if he/she responsibly disagrees with the employer regarding a matter of public concern within the scope of his/her duties, nor if he/she tries to shift policy by dislodging the public officeholder. Essentially, this would leave a public employee devoid of the protection envisioned by Connick – unable to change a bad regime and stuck in it, without recourse, unless he/she is willing to sacrifice secure employment and the ability to provide for his/her family.

3. The right to run for office is encompassed in the right to political association.

The Supreme Court has previously held that “[t]he First Amendment protects political association as well as political expression,” and that “[t]he right to associate with the political party of one’s choice is an integral part of this basic constitutional freedom” of association. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 357 (1976) (plurality opinion) (quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 15 (1976) (per curiam). Those who devote their life to public service should not be deprived, contrary to Connick, the basic rights provided other citizens.

4. The Supreme Court should reaffirm the breadth of public employees’ constitutional protections.

Greenwell is particularly important because, despite the favorable language in Garcetti about treating public employees like members of the general public with respect to First Amendment expression, that 2006 Supreme Court decision may have raised doubts about the depth of public employees’ constitutional rights. In Garcetti, the Supreme 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.” Garcetti, 126 S.Ct. at 1960. Public employees need the Court, in reviewing Greenwell, to reestablish the strong First Amendment protections they still have on the job. See, e.g., Givhan v. Western Line Consol. School Dist., 439 U.S. 410, 414, 99 S.Ct. 693, 58 L.Ed.2d 619 (1979).

[1] The concurrence in Greenwell by Circuit Judge Boyce Martin invites Supreme Court review of both Greenwell and Carver. Judge Boyce’s strong language in his concurrence is compelling (rivaling Carver’s viper imagery): he described Carver, upon which Greenwell relied, as “a stray cat that hangs around the door and infests the house with fleas,” stating that Carver “continues to plague this Court’s jurisprudence. As such, we are bound by its conclusion.” Greenwell, 541 F.3d at 405-406.

 
Bryan Schwartz: Bryan Schwartz is an Oakland, CA-based attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law.

This article was originally posted on Bryan Schwartz Law on May 21, 21009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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