Waters v. Churchill, 511 U.S. 661 (1994)

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WATERS et al. v. CHURCHILL et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 92-1450. Argued December 1, 1993—Decided May 31, 1994

Petitioners fired respondent Churchill from her nursing job at a public hospital, allegedly because of statements she made to co-worker Perkins-Graham during a work break. What Churchill actually said during the conversation is in dispute. Petitioners' version was based on interviews with Perkins-Graham and one Ballew, who had overheard part of the conversation, and indicated that Churchill made disruptive statements critical of her department and of petitioners. However, in Churchill's version, which was corroborated by others who had overheard part of the conversation, her speech was largely limited to nondisruptive statements critical of the hospital's "cross-training" policy, which she believed threatened patient care. Churchill sued under 42 U. S. C. 1983, claiming that her speech was protected under Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138, 142, in which the Court held that the First Amendment protects a government employee's speech if it is on a matter of public concern and the employee's interest in expressing herself on this matter is not outweighed by any injury the speech could cause to the government's interest, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees. The District Court granted petitioners summary judgment, holding that management could fire Churchill with impunity because neither version of the conversation was protected under Connick. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that Churchill's speech, viewed in the light most favorable to her, was on a matter of public concern and was not disruptive, and that the inquiry must turn on what her speech actually was, as determined by a jury, not on what the employer thought it was.

Held: The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded.

977 F. 2d 1114, vacated and remanded.

Justice O'Connor, joined by The Chief Justice, Justice Souter, and Justice Ginsburg, concluded: 1. The Connick test should be applied to what the government employer reasonably thought was said, not to what the trier of fact ultimately determines to have been said. Pp. 668-679. (a) Absent a general test for deciding when the First Amendment requires a procedural safeguard, the question must be answered on a case-by-case basis, by considering the procedure's cost and the relative


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