483 U. S. 378
June 24, 1987
Ardith McPherson had a job in a police office doing clerical work. On March 30, 1981, she heard the news of the Reagan assassination attempt while at work. After speculating that a fellow black had shot him due to cutbacks in welfare, she added “If they go for him again, I hope they get him.” The head of the police office fired her for that remark, but McPherson sued, arguing that the firing violated her First Amendment rights.
The Court held 5-4 that the firing was unconstitutional. Justice Marshall said that McPherson’s remarks were essentially political in nature, because they involved policies like welfare, and the identity of who should be president – precisely what the First Amendment was intended to protect. Marshall then turned to whether any interests outweighed the free speech interest. The Court stressed that McPherson’s job was merely secretarial and ministerial, that her remark was idle private chatter not intended for the general public, and that the police had offered no evidence that her words had interfered with the normal functioning of the office.
Powell’s smarmy concurrence passive-aggressively whined about being forced to decide such an insignificant case. Scalia’s dissent, joined by Rehnquist, White, and O’Connor, disputed that hoping for the president to be murdered was really political speech connected with a legitimate public concern. And even if her bloodthirsty remark was political, Scalia did not think a police station’s interest in firing such employees was minimal. He did not believe, for example, that “employees of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must be permitted to make remarks on the job approving of racial discrimination.” Or, as the police station’s lawyer even more memorably put it, the First Amendment doesn’t mean one can “ride with the cops and cheer for the robbers.”
I’ve got to say, this was one of the most depressing cases ever. Not the holding – just the underlying facts. I want to see genuine racial reconciliation. In this case, we learn of a black teen who thought a statesman should be murdered if he didn’t agree with her political beliefs. Where the crap do you go from that? How do you even begin to have constructive conversations? You can’t. Worse yet, some black church leaders will flatly ignore the Bible (“love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”), and outright encourage this way of thinking.
It’s just so sad.