Rankin v. McPherson
Respondent, a data-entry employee in a county Constable's office, was discharged for remarking to a coworker, after hearing of an attempt on the President's life, "if they go for him again, I hope they get him." Respondent was not a commissioned peace officer, did not wear a uniform, was not authorized to make arrests or permitted to carry a gun, and was not brought by virtue of her job into contact with the public. Her duties were purely clerical, were limited solely to the civil process function of the Constable's office, and did not involve her in the office's minimal law enforcement activity. Her statement was made during a private conversation in a room not readily accessible to the public. The Constable fired petitioner because of the statement. She then brought suit in the Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that her discharge violated her First Amendment right to free speech under color of state law. The court upheld the discharge, but the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded, whereupon the District Court again ruled against respondent. However, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for determination of an appropriate remedy, holding that respondent's remark had addressed a matter of public concern, and that the governmental interest in maintaining efficiency and discipline in the workplace did not outweigh society's First Amendment interest in protecting respondent's speech.
Held: Respondent's discharge violated her First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Pp. 383-392.
(a) The content, form, and context of respondent's statement, as revealed by the record, support the threshold conclusion that the statement constitutes speech on a matter of public concern. The statement was made in the course of a conversation addressing the policies of the President's administration, and came on the heels of a news bulletin regarding a matter of heightened public attention: an attempt on the President's life. Although a statement amounting to a threat to kill the President would not be protected by the First Amendment, the lower courts correctly concluded that respondent's remark could not properly be criminalized. Moreover, the inappropriate or controversial character of a statement is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public concern. Pp. 384-387. [p379]
(b) Petitioners have not met their burden of demonstrating a state interest justifying respondent's discharge that outweighs her First Amendment rights, given the functions of the Constable's office, respondent's position therein, and the nature of her statement. Although that statement was made at the workplace, there is no evidence that it interfered with the efficient functioning of the office. Nor was there any danger that respondent had discredited the office by making the statement in public. Her discharge was not based on any assessment that her remark demonstrated a character trait that made her unfit to perform her work, which involved no confidential or policymaking role. Furthermore, there was no danger that the statement would have a detrimental impact on her working relationship with the Constable, since their employment-related interaction was apparently negligible. Pp. 388-392.
786 F.2d 1233, affirmed.
MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post p. 392. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post p. 394.