FIRE Starters: Pickering v. Board of Education

It use to be the case that public employees had no First Amendment rights. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing in the late 19th century famously wrote, “The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.” The idea was that when one accepted public employment, one willingly relinquished one’s First Amendment rights. The United States Supreme Court fundamentally changed course in 1968 in a case called Pickering v. Board of Education. It involved a high school science teacher from Illinois named Marvin Pickering. Mr. Pickering was upset that his high school science classroom was not finished. Instead, his school’s district had allocated far more money to building a new football stadium. Marvin Pickering thus wrote a letter to the editor to The Lockport Herald. It his letter, Marvin Pickering criticized school officials for giving too much money to athletics instead of academics. School officials weren’t pleased. They fired Marvin Pickering for engaging in speech that was “detrimental” to the school system. For several years, he had to work in a Chicago soup factory to support his family as his case progressed through the court system. He lost all the way through the Illinois state court system, but at the United States Supreme Court he achieved a stunning 8 to 1 victory. Writing for the United States Supreme Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall emphasized that public employees do not lose their free speech rights as citizens. Justice Marshall pointed out the public employees have a right to speak out on matters public concern or importance, and that those issues of public concern are important for the public to hear. Justice Marshall also recognized that a public school teacher is an especially informed member of the public, and that the public has a right to receive information and ideas from those public employees who are best in the know. The net result is that the United States Supreme Court granted a great deal of protection to public employees who engage in speech on matters of public importance.

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