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Court Nixes Restrictions on Officials’ Speech in TX

(CN) - The 5th Circuit rejected a Texas law regulating the speech of elected officials, saying their protection under the First Amendment "is full, robust, and analogous to that afforded citizens in general."

City council members challenged the law after they were indicted for allegedly violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by exchanging private emails discussing whether to call a city council meeting to consider a public contract.

The district attorney eventually dismissed the charges, but the officials sought an injunction against enforcement of the Act. They said the criminal provisions are content-based regulations of speech in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The district court tossed the claims, concluding that elected officials' speech made in the course of their officials duties is "totally unprotected" by the First Amendment.

But Judge Dennis of the three-judge panel said this conclusion misinterprets the Supreme Court's finding in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which held that the First Amendment does not shield a government employee from discipline based on work-related speech.

The lower court's premise that elected officials enjoy no more free-speech protection than public employees "is incorrect," Dennis wrote.

"Job-related speech by public employees is clearly less protected than other speech because the court has held that government employees' speech rights must be balanced with the government's need to supervise and discipline subordinates for efficient operations."

The federal appeals court in New Orleans reversed and remanded, instructing the district court to apply the strict-scrutiny test and force the state to prove that the law is narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest.

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