Thursday, November 6, 2014

First Amendment Protections Apply to Professor’s Speech

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had occasion to review First Amendment protections in the workplace in the case of Meade v. Moraine Valley Community College decided late last week.

In August, 2013, Robin Meade, an adjunct professor, wrote a letter to the League of Innovation in the Community College about her employer, Moraine Valley Community College. The letter leveled multiple charges at the college concerning its poor treatment of adjuncts.  Plaintiff charged that certain practices harmed Moraine Valley’s students. She signed the letter in her capacity as president of the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization, a union representing the college adjunct faculty. Two days later, Moraine Valley fired Meade expressly stating in a written notice that her letter was the reason for its action.

Meade filed a federal lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 alleging that Moraine Valley retaliated against her for exercising her right to freedom of speech and violated her due process rights.  Moraine Valley filed a motion to dismiss which the district court granted finding that Meade’s letter did not address matters of public interest and thus could not serve as the basis of a First Amendment retaliation claim.  Because Meade’s claim came to the Seventh Circuit on appeal, it construed the facts in her complaint in the light most favorable to her as it must.

 The Seventh Circuit began its analysis of Meade’s First Amendment retaliation claim by first addressing whether the speech that prompted her termination was constitutionally protected citing Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 418 (2006). The first part of the inquiry is whether Meade’s speech related to a matter of public concern. The law is well-settled that a teacher such as Meade cannot be fired for exercising her right to free speech on matters of public concern.  If, however, Meade’s overall point in writing the letter was to express a purely personal grievance, then the First Amendment will not protect her speech.

In deciding whether Meade’s letter fits this description, the court considered its content, its form, and the context in which it was written.  Of these three considerations, content is most important. The Court looked at “the overall objective or point” of the letter to determine whether it discussed matters of public concern. It is important to note that the Court pointed out that although Garcetti held that a public employee’s statements made pursuant to her official duties cannot provide the basis for retaliation, Moraine Valley conceded that Meade had no employer-imposed duty to write the letter.

Applying these standards, the court had no trouble concluding that Meade’s letter discussed several matters of public concern. In fact, the court quickly found that the letter contained almost no content personal to Meade. Rather, Meade emphasized that she was writing as the head of a union whose members were concerned about the way the college treated them as a group. The letter made multiple references to the difficulties facing all Moraine Valley’s adjuncts and thus removed it from the realm of being purely personal.  The court noted that Meade was not alone in her concerns as colleges and universities across the country are targets of increasing coverage and criticism regarding their use of adjunct faculty.  Meade’s attempt to link the treatment of adjunct faculty to student performance underscored the public dimension of her comments.

Apparently, the district court did not understand the letter this way because Meade herself taught as an adjunct and thus would be personally affected by any changes in policy.  The district court also erred when it failed to consider the broader nature of Meade’s comments. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit noted that “we have never held that speech that is partly about a matter of public interest but also touches on private concerns is without constitutional protection. In fact, the Seventh Circuit held the opposite in Craig v. Rich Twp. High Sch. Dist. 227, 736 F. 3d 1110 (7th Cir. 2013)  The Seventh Circuit was not persuaded by Moraine Valley’s focus on Meade’s motive in writing the letter and found that her motive was beside the point. It found that a person’s motive is not dispositive in the analysis of whether a communication discusses issues of public concern. In a case such as this one, where the public would be interested, the writer’s motive is useful only to the extent it may shed light on ambiguous statements.

The Seventh Circuit ultimately held that “the content of Meade’s letter places it squarely among matters that are of public concern” and found that the district court erred in concluding that her speech was not constitutionally protected. The case was returned to the district court for further proceedings. On remand, the district court will consider two other key issues pertinent in analyzing First Amendment retaliation cases: 1) whether the speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the retaliatory action, and 2) whether the employer can show that it would have taken the same action without the existence of the protected speech.