Pickering v. Board of Education

Following is the case brief for Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)

Case Summary of Pickering v. Board of Education:

  • The Board of Education fired a teacher for a letter he wrote that was published in the local newspaper.
  • The teacher sued, claiming that his letter was protected by the First Amendment.
  • The Board countered that his firing was because his letter was detrimental to the school system.
  • The lower state court and the Supreme Court of Illinois dismissed the suit.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that the Board was not justified in firing the teacher.  It reasoned that the truthful comments cannot justify termination; and the false statements, because they were not knowingly or recklessly made, also are protected by the First Amendment because they were statements on a matter of public concern.

Pickering v. Board of Education Brief

Statement of the Facts:

A teacher in Township High School District 205 wrote a letter to a local newspaper, complaining about the way in which the Board of Education handled past proposals to raise revenue.  As a result, the Board of Education fired him, claiming that his letter had false statements and was “detrimental to the efficient operation and administration of the schools of the district.”

The teacher’s termination was executed pursuant to an Illinois statute, allowing termination “in the interests of the school.”  The teacher sought review in state court, claiming that the letter was protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Procedural History:

  • The state trial court dismissed the teacher’s claim.
  • The Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed the lower court.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court noted probable jurisdiction.

Issue and Holding:

Was the Illinois statute permitting the teacher’s termination unconstitutional as applied under the First and Fourteenth Amendments?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Supreme Court of Illinois is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Because the teacher’s statements regarded matters of public concern and did not interfere with the performance of his teaching duties, they were entitled to the same First Amendment protection as those of the general public; and absent proof that any falsehoods were knowingly or recklessly made, the Board was not justified in dismissing the teacher from his public employment.

Reasoning:

First, the notion that public employees must relinquish their First Amendment rights on public matters involving the schools in which they work has been consistently rejected.  Second, the statements in the teacher’s letter were essentially criticism of the Board’s handling of tax revenue issues and were not related to anyone with whom the teacher would normally be in contact in his job.

Accordingly, the factually correct statements cannot be grounds for the teacher’s dismissal.  With regard to those statements that were factually false, they did not interfere with the operation of the schools, and they were not knowingly or recklessly made.  Therefore, the teacher’s First Amendment rights outweigh the school’s interest in limiting a teacher’s contribution to public debate.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring in part, and Dissenting in part (White):

The holding that the teacher’s termination must be tested under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan is proper.  However, the Court seems to pull away from the rule that false statements that are knowingly or recklessly made do not enjoy constitutional protection.  That is a mistake.  It is also a mistake for the Court to make conclusions of fact on a cold record based on a standard that the state did not use.  The case should have been remanded for the state to apply the constitutional standard.

Significance:

Pickering v. Board of Education is an important case regarding the amount of First Amendment protection accorded a public employee when the comments at issue have to do with the employee’s employer.  The case was later distinguished in Garcetti v. Ceballos, where the Court found that public employees do not have First Amendment protection for statements made pursuant to their employment.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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