Can a news organization avoid a discrimination claim by arguing that it was exercising its First Amendment right to choose who writes the news?
That’s the question that the California courts have been grappling with in Stanley Wilson’s case against CNN. And that question has now been answered in Wilson’s favor.
On May 29, Roseanne Barr posted a tweet comparing former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape. ABC’s reaction was swift and decisive: it fired Barr and cancelled her show.
ABC’s decision led to pontification from various pundits and Twitter personalities arguing that Barr’s “humor” was somehow “free speech” protected by the First Amendment.
But even if Barr was exercising free speech when she posted her tweets, that has no bearing on ABC’s lawful right to fire her. ABC is a private employer, not the government, so the First Amendment did not prevent it from taking action based on employee speech.
Facebook is as public a forum as they come, yet it’s ironic how intimate some posts can be, as if the user is thinking out loud for everyone to hear.
Posts can be funny, political, or just plain weird, while others allow us to commiserate, empathize, or laugh out loud as we take that ultimate step of “liking” them. Sometimes liking another person’s thoughts can carry a high cost, especially if those thoughts disparage one’s employer.
Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille, the disparaged party in this example, took issue with the Facebook activity of two of its employees. Employee Vincent Spinella, a cook, “liked” this statement of a former employee:
“Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can't even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money...Wtf!!!!”
Bartender Jillian Sanzone added the comment, “I owe too. Such an asshole.”
Triple Play’s management noticed the online behavior and discharged Spinella and Sanzone for violating company policy relating to prohibited internet activity.
Yesterday, we reviewed a recent decision by a federal court in Richmond in the case of Vanterpool v. Cuccinelli (yes that one), and when firing a government employee for speech or political affiliation may be okay under the First Amendment. The answer is that it may be okay if the employee is in a policymaking position. The court’s decision spells out why and what it means to have such a position. The case is also a helpful reminder that staking out one position in litigation may undermine another.
In her first complaint, Vanterpool apparently did not want to say that she posted the comment criticizing Cuccinelli on the Washington Post because she had denied doing so when she was confronted about the comment by one of Cuccinelli’s deputies, Charles E. James, Jr., who was also a defendant in the case. James later questioned Vanterpool’s credibility and asked her to resign or be terminated. If Vanterpool alleged in the complaint that she personally posted the comment, then that could have bolstered a defense by Cuccinelli and James that she wasn’t fired for speaking freely but for being dishonest.
Earlier this month, a federal court in Richmond dismissed the lawsuit of a lawyer named Samantha Vanterpool who worked in the Virginia Office of Attorney General when Republican Ken Cuccinelli was Virginia’s AG and was running to be governor. (Democrat Terry McAuliffe won last November in a race that made national headlines.) Vanterpool claimed that she was fired on the basis of her political affiliation in violation of the First Amendment.
Vanterpool is a Republican but apparently not a Cuccinelli fan. She was fired after she allegedly posted a comment to a May 2012 Washington Post story about Bill Bolling, who was then challenging Cuccinelli for the Republican nomination. You can still see the comment (from “bzbzsammy”), which accuses “Cuccinelli of promoting Cuccinelli” while “Bolling is helping the GOP,” and of “NEVER [being] in the AG’s office and solely us[ing] the position for self promotion.”
In the first part of this series, we raised the question of whether a public employee’s rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution – primarily the right to speak freely on public issues – is limited by the fact that she works for the government. It’s the curious mix of the Constitutional rights we all enjoy, and the duty of the government to act as an employer when it hires and manages people to get things done. We looked briefly at how the Supreme Court addressed this issue: in short summary, public employees keep their rights to free speech on issues of public concern – but when they are speaking as part of their official duties, or their speech creates a disruptive atmosphere for the government agency, the employee can be fired for speaking out.
Two recent cases dealing with deputy attorneys-general illustrate this difficult intersection between public employment and speech. In both cases, the attorneys – a breed not known for silence – lost their jobs for speech: one for speaking out, and the other for refusing to speak when she was told to do so. Let’s see how their cases against their public employers are faring.
Some days when I look over the possible stories here, they’re filled with disputes between attorneys. It almost makes me think that my fellow editors at Suits-by-Suits and me are the only attorneys that can get along. Most of the time, at least.
Because if you are, or have ever dealt with, Attornicus Americanus, then you know two things about our profession: 1) we don’t like to be told to be quiet when we have something important to say; and 2) even worse, though, is telling us we have to say something that we don’t want to say. The two cases at issue in this two-part series feature lawyers working for the government who were in just those situations, and were fired. We look at recent interesting developments in their claims for retaliation. In passing, too, we’ll note what one of these lawyers was fired for saying, and what the other lawyer was fired for refusing to say.
All in all, these are posts about whistleblowing and retaliation claims by public employees – and not just attorneys, either. The public nature of the employment here is important because government employees keep some of their First Amendment rights to free speech when they go to work for the government. The government employer, for its part, has some limited right to limit its employees’ speech in order to get its mission accomplished. So before we turn to the two cases, a brief tour through the First Amendment rights of public employees is in order.