Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)

Pickering, a high school teacher, was dismissed from his position by the board of education for sending a letter critical of the board and of recently proposed tax increases to benefit schools to the editor of the local newspaper. The board held a hearing on the dismissal, as required by Illinois law and determined that the allegations made by Pickering were false and damaging to the board and administration. The Illinois Supreme Court rejected Pickering’s claim that his dismissal violated his freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The Supreme Court found that most of the statements made by Pickering were true, and that the false statements were not made knowingly or recklessly and did not harm the school system. The Court ruled that threat of dismissal from public employment constitutes a damper on the right of free speech. In cases where the speaker’s job is only tangentially and insubstantially related to the subject of the speech, the speaker will be regarded as a member of the general public and his speech subject to the actual malice standard set out in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Pickering’s dismissal violated his rights to free speech.

The decision of the Illinois Supreme Court was reversed and the case remanded. Justice White filed an opinion concurring in the result, but dissenting on the grounds that once Pickering’s false statements were found to be neither reckless nor knowing, the question of harm to the school system was irrelevant.

Pickering was a watershed case in freedom of speech jurisprudence, extending to public employees the protections afforded the general public by the New York Times case.

STEPHEN WATKINS

References and Further Reading

  • Hudson, David L., Jr. ‘‘Balancing Act: Public Employees and Free Speech.’’ First Reports 3 (2002): 1–46.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

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