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Rankin v. McPherson

"i Hope They Get Him"

Ardith McPherson was a probationary employee in the office of the constable of Harris County, Texas. Her job was to enter information into a computer. She worked in a room without a phone, and she had no contact with the public. Her job title was "deputy constable," but this signified little, as that was the job title of every employee in the constable's office.

On 30 March 1981, McPherson heard on the radio at work that someone had attempted to assassinate President Reagan. She speculated to her boyfriend, another deputy constable, that the would-be assassin was probably an African American, as Reagan's policies were particularly punitive to African Americans. She then commented, "If they go for him again, I hope they get him."

Another employee overheard this comment, and reported it to Constable Walter Rankin. The constable called McPherson into his office, and asked her if she had made the comment. She admitted doing so; Rankin fired her on the spot.

McPherson sued Rankin in district court for violating her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of free speech. The district court used a three-question test developed in Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle (1977): 1) Is the speech protected? 2) Did it play a substantial part in the decision to fire the employee? 3) If so, was it the deciding factor? In this case, only (1) was in question. The court answered "no," deciding that, on balance, Rankin's interest was more compelling.

McPherson then took her case to the circuit court of appeals. This court found "substantial issues of material fact." It therefore set aside the district court's judgment and sent the case back to be tried again.

The district court ruled for Rankin a second time, saying that McPherson's speech was not protected. McPherson appealed again to the circuit court. This time, the circuit court reversed the district court's judgment and sent the case back to district court for determination of an appropriate remedy. At this point, Rankin petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was granted.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Rankin v. McPherson - "i Hope They Get Him", Pickering And Connick, Comment A Matter Of Public Concern, "simply Violent"