The McAuliffe v. Mayor of New Bedford, 155 Mass. 216; 29 N.E. 517 (Mass., 1892), decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts limited a public employee’s First Amendment free expression rights, articulating a limited view of employee rights that stood until the U.S. Supreme Court granted more protection to public employees in the 1960s.

Police officer fired for belonging to a political committee

The mayor of New Bedford, Massachusetts dismissed police officer John J. McAuliffe for violating a city rule that provided: “No member of the department shall be allowed to solicit money or any aid, on any pretence, for any political purpose whatever.” The mayor also cited McAuliffe for belonging to a political committee. McAuliffe filed a petition of mandamus to the state high court.

State court upheld the firing

The state high court, in an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., upheld the mayor’s actions. He denied that there was anything in the constitution (presumably that of the state because the Supreme Court had not yet applied the Bill of Rights to the states) or state statutes preventing the city from enforcing such a rule. Holmes observed:

The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman. There are few employments for hire in which the servant does not agree to suspend his constitutional right of free speech, as well as of idleness, by the implied terms of this contract. The servant cannot complain, as he takes the employment on the terms which are offered to him. On the same principle, the city may impose any reasonable condition upon holding offices within its control.

Holmes further argued that the mayor had provided the policeman with an adequate hearing.

Modern Supreme Court decisions say public employees do not forfeit all their free expression rights

Although the Hatch Act of 1939 and other laws continue to regulate political activities of governmental officials, modern Supreme Court decisions, such as Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and its progeny, have established that public employees do not forfeit all their free expression rights when they accept public employment.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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