Supreme Court Declines to Review First Amendment Retaliation Claim

Public Sector EmployersIn July of 2014, we reported about Captain Paul Fields who sued the City of Tulsa for violating his First Amendment rights, as well as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Fields v. City of Tulsa (10th Circuit 2014). His superior, Deputy Chief Webster, sent a memo ordering him or his officers to attend a religious event. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided this case in the police department’s favor. The court found that the order to attend the event did not require Fields to violate his personal religious beliefs. He could have followed the order by ordering others to attend.

The court also held the order did not violate the Establishment Clause because no informed, reasonable observer would have perceived the order or the event as a government endorsement of Islam. The order did not burden Fields’s right of association because it did not interfere with his right to decide what organizations to join as a member. Finally, Fields’s retaliation claim failed because the interests of the police department as an employer outweighed his free-speech interests.

Captain Fields appealed his case to U.S. the Supreme Court, which denied his petition. Apparently, the City prevailed with its argument that Supreme Court precedent clearly establishes that public employee free speech rights are limited. As the City argued, the Court balances “between the rights of public employees and the government’s legitimate purpose in promoting efficiency and integrity in the discharge of official duties, and in maintaining proper discipline in the public service.”

The City also believed that if the lower courts had not struck down Fields’s First Amendment retaliation claim, Fields would still not prevail, because he was not acting as a private citizen when he defied the department’s order, as he was not addressing a matter of public concern. The balance between the department’s interests in serving community members without discrimination outweighed Fields’s interest in raising constitutional claims based on his far-reaching interpretation of the department’s order.