Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U.S. 378 (1987)

2012-08-21 12:48:42

In Rankin v. McPherson, the U.S. Supreme Court held that public employees have a FirstAmendment right to express their political views without fear of discharge.

ArdithMcPhersonwas a probationary clericalworker employed in a constable or law enforcement office. In 1981, upon hearing the news that there was an attempted assassination on President Reagan, she commented to a coworker that, ‘‘If they go for him again, I hope they get him.’’ Her comments were reported to theConstableWalterRankinwho fired her.McPherson sued in federal district court for back pay and for reinstatement to her job, contending that she had been dismissed for exercising her free speech rights.

Writing for the Supreme Court in a five-to-four decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall cited Perry v. Sindermann (1972) and stated that the government may not discharge an employee for exercise of her First Amendment rights. This was the case even if she was a probationary employee. According to Pickering v. Board of Education (1968), the Court stated that the test for determining whether a public employee had been correctly dismissed for exercising free speech rights involves a balance between the rights of the former as a citizen in commenting on matters of public concern versus the rights of the government to maintain efficiency and discipline in the workplace. Here, McPherson’s comments were on a matter of public concern, and because there was no evidence that they interfered with the order and efficiency of the workplace, or that they were overheard by the public, the Court ruled that her First Amendment free speech rights had been violated.


References and Further Reading

  • Hentoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972)
  • Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)

See also Freedom of Speech: Modern Period (1917– Present)