No First Amendment Protection for Professor Who Spoke Out Against Cheating Students

A former adjunct professor at Rockland Community College has no First Amendment retaliation claim arising out of his speech about students cheating, a federal appeals court has ruled.   The decision shows the expansive breadth of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), which provides no free-speech protection for public employees who engage in official, job-duty speech.

Robin Bhattacharya, who taught an adjunct course from 2009 to 2015, contended that five students demanded that he provide them with questions and answers to an upcoming exam.  Bhattacharya refused the students’ demands.  Then, an anonymous letter surfaced, complaining about Bhattacharaya’s teaching methods.

Another professor investigated and determined that Bhattacharya’s standards in the course were too high and he was not given a contract to teach in fall 2016.  Bhattacharya sued, alleging he was fired in retaliation for his speech about the students’ cheating.

A reviewing federal district court rejected his claim in March 2017, reasoning that his speech constituted unprotected employee speech, rather than protected citizen speech under Garcetti.   Bhattacharya appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court in a summary fashion.

“Bhattacharya spoke as an employee rather than a citizen because the speech he contends is protected – refusing to permit cheating by students – is part and parcel of his official duties,” the 2nd Circuit wrote in Bhattacharya v. SUNY Rockland Community College.

Bhattacharya had argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti should not apply at the college and university level, because there is greater protection for academic freedom, scholarship, and teaching at the post-secondary level.

The 2nd Circuit rejected those arguments.  The appeals court wrote that Bhattacharya’s arguments, finding that his speech did not concern the content of his class, scholarship, or his class.

The 2nd Circuit’s decision is troubling.  An adjunct professor should not be punished because he speaks out against student cheating.   If anything, such professorial speech should be lauded, not punished.

This decision shows the unfortunate tentacles of the Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti, which continues to deny needed First Amendment protection to public employees.

David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author of several First Amendment books, including First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012).

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