On May 11, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which hears appeals from federal district courts in Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio, issued its opinion in Mayhew v. Town of Smyrna, Tennessee, which focused on a public employee’s First Amendment free speech rights.
The Plaintiff was the lab supervisor for Smyrna’s wastewater treatment plant. His work duties included ensuring that the plant met governmental regulations and quality-control standards. The Plaintiff reported to the plant manager that one of the supervisors was engaging in questionable conduct regarding water sample evaluations and hindering the Plaintiff’s ability to perform his work duties. Eventually, the supervisor was promoted to plant manager and, after different dialogues, including the Plaintiff complaining about the promotion process and a meeting about the Plaintiff’s ability and willingness to work with the new plant manager, the Plaintiff’s employment was terminated. The Plaintiff filed a Tennessee Public Protection Act claim, which was eventually refiled in Tennessee state court, and a First Amendment claim, which the district court ruled on in favor of the Defendant pursuant to summary judgment and the Sixth Circuit reviewed on appeal.
The Sixth Circuit set forth the legal framework for a First Amendment free speech analysis for public employees. Three elements must be met in order for speech by a public employee to have possible First Amendment protection. The employee must: (1) speak on matters of public concern, (2) speak as a private citizen and not as an employee, and (3) have individual speech interests that outweigh the state’s interest in promoting efficient public services (Opinion, p. 6).