Personal Motivation May Not Automatically Strip Speech Of Constitutional Protection

For many years, there has been a presumption among courts that if a public employee had a personal motivation for engaging in speech, the speech was not constitutionally protected even if the subject of the speech were a matter of public concern. In a case involving Hartford, Connecticut Police Sergeant Edwin Garcia, the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals flatly rejected the prevailing premise.

Garcia’s case began when he informed the Police Chief, the mayor, and others that he believed Hartford police officers were discriminating against Hispanics and that an officer had used excessive force against a Hispanic. When the Chief subsequently publicly criticized Garcia’s complaints of discrimination as “overstated,” Garcia held a press conference to rebut the Chief and to protect his reputation. His lawsuit claimed that the City retaliated against him for holding the press conference. Garcia’s claim of retaliation alleged that he was improperly denied a promotion and became the subject of internal investigations.

The City argued that since Garcia had a personal motivation for his press conference, his speech could not be constitutionally protected. The Court disagreed, reasoning that “to hold that these statements were not a matter of public concern would unreasonably allow public employers to inoculate themselves from First Amendment retaliation claims simply by arguing that the employee spoke about an issue of public concern for personal reasons. As a matter of law, Garcia’s speech relates to a matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.”

Garcia’s victory was Pyrrhic, though. The Court found that there was no evidence that Garcia was, in fact, retaliated against. As the Court put it, “the record is devoid of any factual evidence suggesting that either the decision not to promote Garcia or the IAD investigations were retaliatory in nature. To the contrary, the unrebutted evidence shows legitimate justifications for both.”

Garcia v. Hartford Police Dept., 2013 WL 309981 (2d Cir. 2013).