Access to Public Information, Content Regulation / Censorship, Protection of Sources
Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. v. Ontario
Closed Expands Expression
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held a teacher cannot be fired for exercising her right of free speech on matters of public concern. The Court ruled that in order to determine whether the speech expresses a subject of general interest, rather than a purely personal grievance, the overall objective of the speech must be assessed and that the teacher’s personal motive is not dispositive for such determination.
The Plaintiff was an adjunct faculty at Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois. In August 2013, she wrote a letter to the League for Innovation in the Community College organization (LICC) criticizing the school for its poor treatment of adjunct faculties. She alleged in the letter that such practice adversely affected the students. Two days later, the school sent her an employment termination notice, which cited the letter as its reason.
Subsequently, the Plaintiff brought a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Moraine Valley Community College. She alleged that the school’s termination of her employment was in retaliation against her right to freedom of speech and that she was deprived from her legitimate property interest in the employment without due process of law.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim. It ruled that the letter did not address a matter of public concern and therefore, it could not serve as the basis of a First Amendment retaliation claim. It also held that the Plaintiff lacked a legitimate property interest in her employment with the school.
The Plaintiff then appealed the dismissal to the U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
Chief Justice Wood delivered the Court’s opinion. The first issue was whether the Plaintiff’s letter that prompted her termination was protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. of Twp. High Sch. Dist. 205, Will Cnty., 391 U.S. 563 (1968), in the absence of knowingly or recklessly making false statements, “a teacher’s right to speak on issues of public importance may not furnish the basis for his dismissal from public employment.”
As to whether the Plaintiff’s letter contained a matter of public concern, the Court relied on the definition of “public concern” by the Supreme Court in City of San Diego v. Roe, 543 U.S. 77 (2004). It defined the term as “a legitimate news interest,” or “a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public at the time of publication.” To make such finding, the Court ruled that the overall objective of the letter must be assessed and that the Plaintiff’s personal motive is not dispositive for such determination.
By applying the foregoing standards, the Court found that the Plaintiff’s letter addressed multiple areas of public concern and therefore, it was protected under the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. According to the Court, even though the Plaintiff made a personal statement regarding the school’s proposal in supporting her nomination for a board position, she mainly spoke about the way the school treated its adjunct professors as a group. Also, the Court held that “[her] attempt to link the treatment of adjunct faculty to student performance underscores the public dimension of her comments.”
The Court also ruled that the school violated the Plaintiff’s procedural due process by terminating her employment without providing proper notice. It reasoned that the specific terms of employment contained in the contract between the school and the plaintiff, including the specific starting and ending dates for her teaching responsibilities and her income were sufficient to create a cognizable property interest in her employment.
For foregoing reasons, the Court reversed the district court’s dismissal order and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on protected classes of speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The decision upheld the judicial precedent that in the absence of knowingly or recklessly making false statements, a treaher’s exercise of his right to speak on issues of public importance may not furnish the basis for his dismissal from public employment.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that “absent proof of false statements knowingly or recklessly made by him, a teacher’s exercise of his right to speak on issues of public importance may not furnish the basis for his dismissal from public employment.”
The U.S. Supreme Court 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.”
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The federal districts courts within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit are bound to follow its findings in this case.
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