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

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WATERS v. CHURCHILL 511 U.S. 661 (1994)

Cheryl Churchill disliked her supervisor, Cynthia Waters, and the new cross-training program for nurses established at the public hospital that employed her. When Churchill aired some of these complaints in the hospital cafeteria, her conversation was overheard by another nurse. After a short investigation in which that nurse and the other party to the conversation claimed that Churchill had made "unkind" remarks about Waters, Waters fired Churchill. A lower federal court ruled that the firing violated Churchill's first amendment right to freedom of speech because she had not, in fact, criticized her boss.

The Supreme Court reversed. The majority held that public employees may be discharged on the basis of remarks their supervisors, after a reasonable investigation, thought they said, even when the actual remarks were constitutionally protected speech. The government interest in "efficient employment decisionmaking," Justice sandra day o'connor's declared in her plurality opinion, justified abandoning "the evidentiary rules used by courts" when evaluating the speech rights of public employees. The Justices could not tell from the record whether Churchill was constitutionally fired for expressing distaste for her employer or unconstitutionally fired for criticizing the cross-training program. Hence, the case was remanded to the lower court.

Waters v. Churchill highlights the tendency of the rehnquist court to make case-specific decisions, particularly when O'Connor is the swing vote. Her majority opinion gives little indication of what constitutes a reasonable investigation, except to indicate that one was conducted in this case. Nor is the constitutional difference between criticizing a public employer and criticizing a program instituted by a public employer spelled out. The main lesson may be that public employees should not criticize their supervisors in places where others may overhear their conversations.

Mark A. Graber

(see also: National Treasury Employees Union, United States v.; Public Employees and Free Speech.)