Speaking Freely

Balancing Interests

Consider a Wisconsin case decided May 9 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. A firefighter with a long history of disciplinary action had such a strong personal vendetta against the fire chief that he carried a protest sign at the chief's swearing-in ceremony. The department finally fired the fire-fighter for insubordination after he faxed a "news release" to local newspapers accusing the fire chief of showing favoritism to another employee being investigated for questionable conduct because, the fire-fighter declared, both were lesbians. The firefighter sued, charging that the department had violated his right to free speech. Both the district court and the appeals court ruled that while the press release concerned matters of public concern (lenient disciplinary action and possible favoritism within the fire department), the fire-fighter's interest in expressing his opinions did not outweigh the government's interest in promoting efficient public services.

Many of the cases in this area concern public employees, who have slightly more freedom of speech because an action taken by a public employer amounts to action taken by the government itself, Clemow notes. "But even a public [employee] cannot use his or her position as a platform for spreading political views," says Clemow. For instance, school teachers can get in trouble for advocating a political agenda in the classroom.

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This article was originally published in the August 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Speaking Freely.

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