In a ruling that breaks from other recent federal court decisions chipping away at the speech rights of public colleges’ faculty members, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held on Wednesday that the University of North Carolina at Wilmington could not deny a promotion to a faculty member, the prominent conservative commentator Michael S. Adams, based on writings that university administrators had deemed job-related.
Squarely tackling the question of whether the speech of a faculty member at a public college is covered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which held that public agencies can discipline their employees for any statements made in connection with their jobs, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit answered with an emphatic no.
“Applying Garcetti to the academic work of a public-university faculty member under the facts of this case could place beyond the reach of First Amendment protection many forms of public speech or service a professor engaged in during his employment,” the appellate panel’s unanimous decision says. “That would not appear to be what Garcetti intended, nor is it consistent with our long-standing recognition that no individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment.”
The ruling overturns a U.S. District Court’s decision to reject Mr. Adams’s assertions that the speech at issue in the case was constitutionally protected.
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