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

Facts:

  • McPherson was basically a secretary for the Constable of Harris County, Texas.
  • After an attempt to assassinate the President, McPherson had a conversation with a co-worker (also her boyfriend), and said that “If they go for him again, I hope they get him.”
  • Another co-worker overheard, and then reported the remark, and McPherson was fired.
  • McPherson then sued, alleging a violation of her constitutional rights (freedom of speech).

History:

  • The District Court entered summary judgment in favor of the constable and county.
  • The Court of Appeals reversed.

Issue:
Whether a clerical employee in a county constable’s office was properly discharged for remarking, after hearing of an attempt on the life of the President, “If they go for him again, I hope they get him.”

Holding:
No. Affirmed.

Reasoning:
(1) The first question you ask in freedom of expression cases is whether the employee’s speech may be fairly characterized as constituting speech on a matter of public concern.

  • Here, that clearly was the case, as McPherson was commenting on an attempt on the life of the President, as well as his policies.
  • “While a statement that amounted to a threat to kill the President would not be protected by the First Amendment, the District Court concluded, and we agree, that McPherson’s statement did not amount to a threat.”

(2) Next, the determination whether a public employer has properly discharged an employee for engaging in speech requires “a balance between the interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”

  • Here, “given the function of the agency, McPherson’s position in the office, and the nature of her statement, we are not persuaded that Rankin’s interest in discharging her outweighed her rights under the First Amendment.”
    • There was no evidence that the statement interfered with the functioning of the office.
    • Her remark was made privately.
    • “Where, as here, an employee serves no confidential, policymaking, or public contact role, the danger to the agency’s successful functioning from that employee’s private speech is minimal.”
  • Basically, her comment wasn’t very disruptive.

Rule: An employee’s speech is protected when:

(1) It addresses a matter of public concern; and
(2) The employee’s interest in commenting on matters of public concern outweighs the government’s interest in promoting the efficiency of the services it performs.

AKA The Pickering Balancing Test.