Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
Perozo and others v. Venezuela
Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of
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An Moraine Valley Community College fired an adjunct professor after she wrote a letter about her employer, which discussed the college’s treatment of adjuncts. The professor sued the school in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the school violated her right to freedom of speech and due process rights. The U.S. Court of Appeal for the Seventh Circuit held that the employee’s letter was a matter of public concern, and the Court remanded the case to the district court to determine the remaining issues: “whether the speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the retaliatory action, and whether the defendant can show that it would have taken the same action without the existence of the protected speech.”
In August 2013, Robin Meade, an adjunct faculty member, wrote a letter about her employer, Moraine Valley Community College, a community college located in Palos Hills, Illinois. In her letter, which she sent to League of Innovation in the Community College (LICC), Meade identified grievances with her employer, including Moraine Valley’s treatment of adjuncts and that treatment’s impact on students. Meade signed this letter as Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization’s president, and the letter was on the Organization’s letterhead. The Organization is a union that represents the adjunct faculty at Moraine Valley.
In her letter, Meade referenced Moraine Valley’s request to union leaders, including Meade, that they write letters to LICC supporting Moraine Valley’s reapplication to LICC’s board. In her letter, Meade also outlined why she did not support this reapplication. She explained that her lack of support stemmed from what she characterized as Moraine Valley’s treatment of adjunct faculty as “‘a disposable resource’ and ‘a separate, lower class of people.’”
For support, Meade pointed to instances of full-time faculty receiving greater resources, even though 60 percent of Moraine Valley’s classes were taught by adjuncts. Given this percentage, Meade argued that rates of student success were dependent on adjuncts. She also discussed Moraine Valley’s prohibition on adjuncts working on an hourly basis, which prevented them from tutoring students, and she mentioned that Moraine Valley had denied adjuncts certain classes with no explanation, as well as access to health care. Meade argued that cumulatively this treatment had “‘created a chilling effect which affects adjunct performance and erodes the confidence the idyllic atmosphere and beautiful buildings and grounds strive to project.’”
In August 2013, Meade had signed a one-page “employment agreement,” which stated, “the document was ‘not a full-time employment contract’ and added ‘Should the need for indicated service not materialize, this agreement automatically becomes null and void.’” Two days after sending her letter to LICC, Moraine Valley fired Meade. Meade received a job termination notice from Moraine Valley’s executive vice president, Andrew Duren, that cited her letter as the reason for Meade’s firing. According to Duren, “[t]he letter was ‘replete with misrepresentations and falsehoods,’…along with ‘irresponsible rhetoric’ that was ‘disruptive and not consistent with the best interests of the College.’” Duren also characterized Meade’s letter as “‘a personal attempt to falsely discredit’ the college,” rather than advocacy on the union’s behalf. Accordingly, as Meade’s conduct was deemed incongruent with Moraine Valley’s vest interest, according to Duren, Moraine Valley immediately terminated Meade as an adjunct.
In an e-mail from Moraine Valley’s chief of police a couple weeks later, Moraine Valley informed Meade that her future presence on campus would be treated as criminal trespass. Believing that her employer retaliated against her for writing the letter, Meade sued Moraine Valley in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. Meade believed that her First Amendment right to freedom of speech (applicable to the state of Illinois through the Fourteenth Amendment) and her due process rights were violated because her employment agreement had created a property interest, allowing suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Meade made a third claim under Illinois law, which the district court dismissed without prejudice and Meade did not appeal.
As a threshold issue, the district court considered if the contents of Meade’s letter were a matter of public interest. The district court determined that the letter did not address a matter of public concern. Thus, the Court determined that the letter could not be the basis of a First Amendment claim of retaliation, and the court dismissed the case for failure to state a claim. The district court also dismissed her due process claims because of her lack of property interest in her employment at Moraine Valley.
Wood, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. Given that the lower court dismissed Meade’s case for failure to state a claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was required to “construe Meade’s complaint in the light most favorable to her and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor.” In evaluating her First Amendment retaliation claim, the Court considered “whether the speech that prompted her termination was constitutionally protected,” which required a determination of “whether Meade’s speech related to a matter of public concern.” The District Court had previously found that Meade’s speech was not a matter of public concern.
In accordance with precedent, the Court noted that the First Amendment could not protect Meade if she wrote the letter to express purely personal grievances, rather than matters of public concern. In City of San Diego v. Roe, the Supreme Court of the United States defined “public concern” as “‘legitimate news interest,’ or ‘a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public at the time of publication.’” To determine if Meade’s letter fell within this category, the Court considered the letter’s context, form, and content, with content given the most weight. The Court also noted that it cannot give too much weight to Meade’s motive, and it should instead focus on the letter’s overall point or objective when determining public concern.
Unlike the lower court, the Seventh Circuit found that the Meade’s letter was a matter of public concern that addressed multiple areas of public concern. Additionally, the Court found that the letter had very minimal context personal to Meade in that it “said nothing about her own experiences or gripes.” Rather, she was writing as the union’s head and addressed matters relevant to the organization’s members.
One matter of public concern addressed in the letter was the link between student performance and the school’s treatment of adjunct faculty. The Court noted that it would be difficult to classify this matter as either purely personal or of zero public interest, even though the district court disregarded the Pickering case and determined that the letter’s content could be personal because Meade, an adjunct herself, would be affected by changes to the school’s policy. In Pickering, the Supreme Court noted that public employees are often best informed on public concern matters in their job. The Court ruled that the district court erred in deciding that Meade’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment. Given that the district court made no further determination, the Court remanded to the lower court for determinations on the two remaining issues: “whether the speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the retaliatory action, and whether the defendant can show that it would have taken the same action without the existence of the protected speech.”
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
In overturning the lower court’s decision, the Court upheld many important First Amendment precedents, including Pickering v. Board of Education. However, given that the lower court is yet to rule on remand, the validity and effects of the First Amendment protections espoused in the Court’s opinion are still unclear.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
391 U.S. 563, 574 (Teachers’ right of free speech).
712 F.3d 979, 986.
461 U.S. 138, 147 (teachers’ First Amendment rights when writing a letter expressing a grievance).
543 U.S. 77, 83–84 (standard for determining if speech is of “public concern”).
560 F.3d 705, 714 (when using factors to determine if speech is of “public concern,” the most important factor is content).
(evaluating speech that contains both private concerns and public interest.)
547 U.S. 410, 418 (“whether the speech that prompted her termination was constitutionally protected”).
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The district court is bound the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, including the appellate Court’s directives for remand.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.