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Rankin v. McPherson

Comment A Matter Of Public Concern

Justice Marshall, writing for the majority, first addressed the threshold question of whether McPherson's comment was "speech on a matter of public concern." The Court found that it was, because an attempt on the president's life clearly concerned the public. The context of the comment, a conversation about the president's policies, also helped its public concern status.

The next question was whether McPherson's statement interfered with the office's ability to provide services efficiently. Marshall did not see any evidence that it had (though Scalia disputed this in his dissent). By Rankin's own testimony, he did not dismiss McPherson in order to maintain an efficient office. He did not ask himself whether or not the comment was disruptive. Rankin fired McPherson because he felt, on the basis of the comment, that she was unsuitable for employment in the constable's office.

Moreover, the specific job of the employee was worth considering. Marshall wrote that because McPherson's duties were so circumscribed, and because she served "no confidential, policymaking, or public contact role," she really had limited potential for disrupting the agency or diminishing public trust in the agency. The majority therefore found that, on balance, McPherson's discharge was unwarranted, and ruled for her.

In a concurrence, Justice Powell wondered "how this case has assumed constitutional dimensions and reached the Supreme Court of the United States." To him, this was a relatively minor and clear-cut free speech case. Because McPherson's comment was made privately, the government's interest would have to be unusually great to override her rights in a Pickering balance.

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"