Illinois public-school teacher Marvin Pickering was fired by the school board after the local newspaper published his letter-to-the-editor criticizing the district’s funding priorities and accusing the district of muzzling teachers from speaking out against a bond referendum. Pickering challenged his dismissal as a violation of his First Amendment rights. The board maintained that the accusations in the letter were factually false and damaging to the reputations of board members. A county court ruled that the district had the authority to fire Pickering for behavior “detrimental to the best interests of the schools,” and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed.
A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling and decided in Pickering’s favor. The Court recognized that a government agency has greater power to regulate the speech of employees it supervises than the speech of members of the public. But that authority must be balanced against the employees’ right to be heard as citizens on matters of public concern: “Teachers are, as a class, the members of a community most likely to have informed and definite opinions as to how funds allotted to the operation of the schools should be spent. Accordingly, it is essential that they be able to speak out freely on such questions without fear of retaliatory dismissal.”
The Court ruled that a government employee may not be punished for speech addressing matters of public concern unless it is proven that the speech was knowingly or recklessly false. The Court’s ruling has become known as the “Pickering balancing test.” Under the Pickering test, a legal challenge to punishment of a public employee’s speech is resolved by weighing the employee’s interest in delivering a message on an issue of public concern against the employer’s interest in preventing disruption of the workplace.