Do adults forfeit their First Amendment protections once they become public school employees?
No. The Supreme Court has ruled that public school teachers, like other public employees, do not forfeit all constitutional protections when they take a government job. In fact, the Court has stated that "it can hardly be argued that either teachers or students shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."1
For the early part of the 20th century, courts ruled that public employees had no right to object to conditions placed upon public employment. The courts subscribed to the view given by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who, as a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, wrote: "A policeman may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman."2
The Supreme Court abandoned this view later in the 20th century with a series of decisions regarding loyalty oaths. Then, in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the seminal public employee First Amendment case, Pickering v. Board of Education. In that decision, the high court ruled that school district officials violated the First Amendment rights of high school science teacher Marvin Pickering when they fired him for writing a letter to the editor in his local paper criticizing the superintendent, the school board, and the board’s allocation of monies between academics and athletics.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the court, noted that "the problem in any case is to arrive at a balance between the interests of the teacher, 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."3
The Court first noted that Pickering's letter referred to important matters of public concern in the community. Pointing out that Pickering should not lose the rights he possessed as a citizen simply because he worked as a public school teacher, the court also minimized the board’s argument that the letter disrupted the efficient operation of the schools.
Finally, the Court concluded that "the interest of the school administration in limiting teachers' opportunities to contribute to public debate is not significantly greater than its interest in limiting a similar contribution by any member of the general public."4
Tinker, 393 U.S. at 506.
McAuliffe v. Mayor of New Bedford, 155 Mass. 216, 29 N.E. 517 (1892).
Pickering v. Bd. of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968).
Hudson, D. (2001, July 20). "Teacher looks back on letter that led to firing -- and Supreme Court victory." Available at
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 | 08:46:20