Earlier this week, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the employer, City of Chicago, did not violate an employee’s First Amendment right to protected speech when he allegedly spoke out against a directive to include information in a report that, in his opinion, was not accurate.
In the case of Lett v. City of Chicago, the plaintiff was an investigator for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of police misconduct. According to his complaint, the Chief Administrator, in reviewing one of his case reports, directed him to include a statement that the investigation found that the police officer in question had planted a gun on a shooting victim. Plaintiff claimed that he did not find that statement to be accurate.
Plaintiff alleged that he later complained to the Chief Administrator’s deputy about that directive. He also claimed that when the Chief Administrator learned of his conversation with the deputy, she removed him from his investigator position, assigned him to janitorial duties, opened a disciplinary investigation on him, alleging that by speaking with the deputy he violated confidentiality rules and ultimately fired him.
Plaintiff filed a grievance which ultimately resulted in his reinstatement with back pay, but he alleged in his complaint that upon return to work he was immediately placed on paid administrative leave and not allowed to work. He filed a civil suit, alleging, among other things, that he was punished for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech in sharing his concerns with the deputy about the directive to include a statement in his report about which he did not agree.
The 7th circuit upheld the district court’s dismissal of his First Amendment rights violation. In order to sustain a claim for violation of First Amendment protected speech, a public employee must show that they were speaking on a topic as a private citizen on a matter of public concern and that the speech in question was not outweighed by the employer’s interest in promoting effective and efficient public service. The 7th circuit agreed that the plaintiff’s remarks were not made as a private citizen as they were about concerns with a directive regarding his work. The court noted that the First Amendment does not empower an employee to “constitutionalize the employee’s speech.” In other words, work complaints, regardless of their validity, are not protected speech.
Sometimes the law, when applied to facts, can make you feel a little uncomfortable. These allegations might be an example of that, but it is also important to remember the old adage that “there are two sides to every story.” The case was decided only on the allegations in the complaint, so their accuracy, as well as other facts perhaps left out of the complaint, are not available. Additionally, the case references the fact that the plaintiff did obtain relief through a grievance procedure; the situation just did not invoke First Amendment protections.