Garcetti v. Ceballos

Following is the case brief for Garcetti v. Ceballos, United States Supreme Court, (2005)

Case Summary for Garcetti v. Ceballos:

  • Ceballos worked for the government, employed as a deputy district attorney.
  • Ceballos was called by the defense to testify to the authenticity of an affidavit which he previously thought may be inaccurate. After testifying he was subject to discipline.
  • Ceballos brought an action against the District Attorney claiming his discipline was improper as his testimony was protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
  • The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not protect a public official’s speech when expressed strictly pursuant to the duties of employment.

Garcetti v. Ceballos Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Ceballos worked for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office as a deputy district attorney. He suspected an affidavit used as the basis to obtain a search warrant contained serious misrepresentations. Ceballos then contacted the Los Angeles deputy sheriff who made the affidavit regarding the reasons for the inaccuracies. Unsatisfied with the sheriff’s answers, Ceballos disclosed his findings to his supervisors and recommended case dismissal. After his supervisors decided to proceed with the case Ceballos was called by the defense to testify regarding the affidavit’s inaccuracies. Ceballos claims that he was subjected to retaliatory employment actions after he testified. In response, Ceballos brought suit in federal district court against the Los Angeles County District Attorney Garcetti, claiming the First Amendment protected his testimony.

Procedural History:

The district court held that Garcetti was protected by qualified immunity. Ceballos appealed and the court of appeals reversed. Garcetti then petitioned to the United States Supreme Court which granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does the First Amendment protect a public official’s speech when expressed strictly pursuant to the duties of the employment? No.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Speech by a public official, even on a matter of public concern, is not protected under the First Amendment when made while on the job and as part of official duties. (Distinguished from government employee speech when made as a private citizen)


The court of appeals judgment is reversed.


The Court has held that a public employee has no right to object to conditions placed upon the terms of employment. This includes conditions that restrict the employee’s exercise of a constitutional right. Some decisions held the First Amendment protects a public employee’s right to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern in limited circumstances.

When the speech is made as a private citizen and not a government employee, then a First Amendment claim arises if the specific government entity does not have an adequate justification for treating the employee differently than the general public. In the event an employee is speaking as a citizen about matters of public concern, they must face only those speech restrictions necessary for their employers to operate both effectively and efficiently.

In this case, Ceballos believed the affidavit on which the search warrant was based contained serious misrepresentations and expressed this view to his supervisors. Ceballos made this speech under his duties calendar deputy.  As a result, Ceballos was speaking in his official capacity and not as a private citizen, which would invoke First Amendment protections. Since his speech was not protected under the First Amendment, Ceballos is subject to discipline by his advisors.

Dissenting or Concurring opinions:

Dissenting (Stevens):

The majority opinion that the first amendment does not protect a government employee from discipline based on speech made when carrying out official duties is too absolute. The rule should not apply if the speech is unwelcome when it reveals facts that the supervisor would rather not have others discover.

Dissenting (Souter):

Although the implementation of its policies qualifies as a substantial interest to a government employer, these interests can be outweighed by private and public interests. There is no reason for such a broad exclusion of speech from First Amendment protection. Balances both the interests of the government and the individual employees would be a better approach.

Dissenting (Breyer):

The majority’s opinion is too absolute. It is important to afford government employers sufficient discretion to manage their operations but there may be circumstances in which there is a special demand for constitutional protections of speech. In this case, a prosecutor has a constitutional obligation to learn of, preserve, and communicate with the defense about exculpatory and impeachment evidence in the possession of the government. As a result, there should have been constitutional protections available to Ceballos.


Garcetti v. Ceballos was the landmark case which distinguished speech by a public official, even on a matter of public concern from government employee speech when made as a private citizen. Speech made by a government employee in official capacity does not receive First Amendment protections.

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