A speech pathologist sued the school district where she worked, claiming that the district had retaliated against her for exercising her right to free speech.

As a speech pathologist, she provided speech therapy to students at three campuses within the district. At some point during her first year of employment, she complained to her supervisors that student reports she printed from one school were being routed to a printer that was located in a public hallway at another school. She believed such open access to the reports was a problem with regard to federal student privacy rights.

She alleged that after she made this complaint and attempted to have the printer setup corrected through the district's IT department, her supervisor created a hostile work environment by giving her an "exhausting and rigorous schedule of meetings" and then initiating an investigation against her based on "false accusations of Medicaid fraud."

The fraud investigation the speech pathologist was referring to concerned documentation of services delivered to students. One of her duties as a speech therapist was to accurately record and report the services she provided to each student so that the district could be reimbursed by Medicaid. Due to discrepancies in her documentation regarding the dates and times of services rendered to particular students, the district was never able to submit any of the paperwork to the federal government for reimbursement.

The district commenced an investigation into the documentation anomalies, and she was placed on administrative leave while the investigation was pending. Following the investigation, the speech pathologist requested, and was granted, a reassignment as a content mastery teacher.

After being granted her reassignment to the teaching position, she filed a lawsuit, alleging that her constitutional right of free speech had been violated and seeking an injunction against future violations. The case was dismissed and she appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed that dismissal of the lawsuit was appropriate. In an employment context, an employee’s speech is protected by the First Amendment if it is a “matter of public concern.”

When considering whether speech involves a matter of public concern, generally the courts find that speech made as part of the speaker’s official duties is not constitutionally protected free speech. This is because restricting that employment related speech does not limit any liberties the employee may enjoy as a private citizen.

Speech that is made privately between the speaker and her employer, rather than against the backdrop of public debate, is generally not protected free speech. Here, the only speech that she alleged was protected was her complaint about the copier printing to the wrong location. This complaint was related to her official duties in creating and submitting reports and was spoken only to her supervisors. Therefore, it was not protected free speech under the First Amendment.