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If a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling is allowed to stand, municipal employees who express phrases such as “natural family,” “family values” or even “marriage” at the workplace could be found guilty of promoting hate speech.
According to a late-2002 suit brought before a district court by the Pro-Family Law Center (PFLC) on behalf of two city employees of Oakland, California, top city officials and employees belonging to left-leaning groups were allowed to use the municipality’s email and bulletin boards systems to attack the Bible, denounce Christian values and call Bible believers “hateful.”
In reaction, the plaintiffs created the “Good News Employees Association” (GNEA) and attempted to announce its formation to all employees through the city’s email system. Titled “Preserve Our Workplace With Integrity,” the message stated the association “is a forum for people of Faith to express their views on the contemporary issues of the day. With respect for the Natural Family, Marriage and Family Values. If you would like to be a part of preserving integrity in the Workplace, call…”
The email administrators refused to distribute the GNEA email, but instead sent it to the City Attorney’s office, where the message was officially rejected. According to the PFLC, “a staff attorney complained that she was personally offended by it.”
However, other sociopolitical and religious email announcements were permitted to be published, including:
An invitation to view an “altar exhibition” for the “Day of the Dead”
The promotion of “National Coming Out Day”
An invitation to the “First Annual Holiday Mixer” for Oakland’s Gay-Straight Employee Alliance.
An invitation, sent by an Oakland City Councilmember, to participate in “the first anti-Iraq War teach-in sponsored by a city government anywhere in the U.S.”
The plaintiffs also posted a flyer bearing the same announcement on an employee bulletin board, where it was displayed among various messages promoting an assortment of ideological views.
Management took down the GNEA flyer and then sent an employee-wide memo, stating that the flyer was “homophobic” and amounted to “sexual-orientation-based harassment.” Management added (according to the PFLC) threats of “disciplinary action and even possible firing for any future malefactor.”
The Pro-Family Law Center filed a suit against the City of Oakland for suppressing the First Amendment rights of the two employees.
In March 2007, the Ninth Circuit—the largest of the 13 U.S. courts of appeals—ruled against the plaintiffs. The court’s opinion stated, “Public employers are permitted to curtail employee speech as long as their ‘legitimate administrative interests’ outweigh the employee’s interest in freedom of speech”—also affirming that “the district court appropriately described their speech interest as ‘vanishingly small.’”
Challenging the ruling, the PFLC has filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court.