Pickering v. Board of Education
Decided on June 3, 1968; 391 US 563

Teacher fired for writing critical article about school board


A. Issues Discussed: First Amendment (press, speech, association)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did school officials violate the 1st Amendment by firing a teacher for sending a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the school board?

A. Background:

Appellant Marvin Pickering, a high school teacher, was fired by appellee, the Board of Education, for sending a letter to a local newspaper in which he criticized the Board's allocation of school funds between educational and athletic programs. The Board determined that the letter contained false statements and that its publication was "detrimental to the efficient operation and administration of the schools of the district" and therefore, they argued in the interests of the schools, Mr. Pickering's dismissal was required.

Appellant argued that his writing of the letter was protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, but the Board rejected his argument and fired him. Appellant then sought review of the Board's action in the Circuit Court of Will County, Illinois, which affirmed his dismissal on the grounds that the appellant's letter was detrimental to the interests of the school system. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed the judgment. Appellant then sought review in the US Supreme Court and the high court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
John Ligtenberg argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs was Andrew J. Leahy.
John F. Cirricione argued the cause and filed a brief for appellee.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable  Unavailable  
Opposing Side
Milton I. Shadur filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois Division as amicus curiae, urging reversal. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.

"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...

What we do have before us is a case in which a teacher has made erroneous public statements upon issues then currently the subject of public attention, which are critical of his ultimate employer but which are neither shown nor can be presumed to have in any way either impeded the teacher's proper performance of his daily duties in  the classroom  or to have interfered with the regular operation of the schools generally. In these circumstances we conclude 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...

The public interest in having free and unhindered debate on matters of public importance - the core value of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment - is so great that it has been held that a State cannot authorize the recovery of damages by a public official for defamatory statements directed at him except when such statements are shown to have been made either with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity... [I]t is therefore perfectly clear that, were appellant a member of the general public, the State's power to afford the appellee Board of Education or its members any legal right to sue him for writing the letter at issue here would be limited by the requirement that the letter be judged by the standard laid down in New York Times [v. Sullivan]...

[I]n a case such as the present one, in which the fact of employment is only tangentially and insubstantially involved in the subject matter of the public communication made by a teacher, we conclude that it is necessary to regard the teacher as the member of the general public he seeks to be.

In sum, we hold that, in a case such as this, absent proof of false statements knowingly or recklessly made by him, a teacher's exercise of his right to speak on issues of public importance may not furnish the basis for his dismissal from public employment. Since no  such showing has been made in this case regarding appellant's letter, his dismissal for writing it cannot be upheld and the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court must, accordingly, be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 8 Pro vs. 1 Con

  • Marshall, T. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Warren, E.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Fortas, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Supreme Court of Illinois in an 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.