Background/Context: Pickering v. Board of Education, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968, is considered the high-water mark in the constitutional protection of public employee free speech. Two significant decisions issued by that Court since Pickering have limited public employees’ expressive rights: Connick v. Myers and Garcetti v. Ceballos.
Purpose/Objective: The principal research questions which were the focus of this study are: is the adverse effect on free speech presumed by legal analysts following Connick and Garcetti having real effects in terms of judicial voting behavior and, if so, how has this occurred?
Research Design: We set up legal precedent and the judge’s ideology as predictors of judicial voting behavior. The legal precedent variable delineates three intervals, namely the Pickering era [1968–1983], the Connick era [1983–2006) and the Garcetti era [2006–2014]. Two different measures of ideology are considered: party affiliation and the judge’s DW-NOMINATE score. The dependent variable is the judge’s individual vote in each case. Votes are categorized as pro-employer or pro-employee.
Data Collection and Analysis: Because our interest is specific to K–12 settings we analyze 507 judicial votes drawn from the 169 U.S. Courts of Appeals employer-employee free speech cases brought by school employees between the issuance of Pickering in 1968 and the post-Garcetti period into 2014. Since our dependent variable is dichotomous the statistical estimates are obtained via logistic regression.
Conclusions/Recommendations: We find that employee-plaintiffs are prevailing at lower rates at the U.S. Courts of Appeals in free speech claims against public school districts following the Garcetti decision. Since Garcetti, Courts of Appeals judges—those appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents—have voted in an increasingly pro-employer direction. We contend this results from “doctrinal signaling,” here, the progressive curtailment in the Supreme Court of public employees’ free speech rights from Connick v. Myers in 1983 to Garcetti. We suggest this “signaling” is used by Courts of Appeals judges as an interpretive tool to give meaning to apparently ambiguous decisions such as Garcetti. Finally, the impact and implications of this negative trend for K–12 employees, as well as possible solutions, are considered.