In Dixon v University of Toledo, the Sixth Circuit recently added to a long line of cases contouring the boundary between protected and unprotected speech of public university officials.
On December 17, 2012, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that the University of Toledo did not violate Crystal Dixon’s First Amendment rights when it fired her for publishing an opinion-editorial comparing the gay-rights and the civil-rights movements and commenting on the alleged denial of healthcare benefits to same-sex couples employed by the University. Dixon, then interim Associate Vice President for Human Resources, argued that she did not identify her official position at the University and expressed her personal opinions in the editorial and, therefore, her speech was protected. The University, however, argued that Dixon served in a policymaking position and that the editorial, which related to Dixon’s political and policy views, called her competency into question. The Court agreed. In reaching its decision, the Court found that Dixon’s speech fell into the presumption set forth in Rose v. Stephens: “where a confidential or policymaking public employee is discharged on the basis of speech related to his political or policy views,” the interest of the government as employer outweighs the free speech interest of the employee. The Court explained that when a high-level official writes publically against the very policies that the government employer charges it with creating, promoting and enforcing, this speech is unprotected.