Permission to Speak Freely? Managing Government Employee Speech in a Democracy
Anna Resmini

Permission to Speak Freely? Managing Government Employee Speech in a Democracy

A symposium examining the speech rights of public employees—and the threats they face

Columbia University and Online

On April 5, 2024, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and experts for a symposium exploring the speech rights of public employees—from the civil service and public sector unions to educators and researchers.

In our deeply polarized political environment, the question of how a democracy ought to manage the speech of some 22 million public employees is more important than ever. We'll examine this issue through a series of conversations about First Amendment, administrative, and labor law; democratic theory and political contestation; and the balance between transparency and autonomy.

The symposium, “Permission to Speak Freely? Managing Government Employee Speech in a Democracy,” is part of a collaboration between the Knight Institute and the Institute’s 2023-2024 Senior Visiting Research Scholar Sam Lebovic.

It will take place in person at Columbia University and online. RSVP to learn more.

Co-sponsored by Columbia Law School and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

Permission to Speak Freely? Managing Government Employee Speech in a Democracy

An Introduction to My Project: Permission to Speak Freely?

Call for Proposals: Permission to Speak Freely? Managing Government Employee Speech in a Democracy


  • Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia University (Lerner 555)

    2920 Broadway, New York, NY 10027



    • Jameel Jaffer, Knight Institute

    Panel 1: Duty and Dissent: Public Employee Speech Rights and Their Limits

    How should we manage political conflict within the public sector? If an individual employee dissents from a policy decision, what rights to free expression do they have, and what rights should they have? Are there sectors of the government where the appearance of objectivity or unanimity is more important than the individual right to dissent? And what of collective protest, and of the rights of public employees to unionize? 


    • Kate Andrias, Columbia Law School and Columbia Labor Lab
    • Frank LoMonte, CNN and University of Georgia School of Law
    • Teague Paterson, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO
    • Daniel E. Walters, Texas A&M University School of Law


    • Ramya Krishnan, Knight Institute


    Panel 2: Students, Teachers, and the Politics of Speech in Schools

    What limits can a democratically elected government legitimately place on conduct and content in the classroom? When do those limits become illegitimate interferences with First Amendment rights and values? And whose rights should be prioritized when classroom rules become contentious—the teacher, the student, or the community? 


    • Derek Black, University of South Carolina School of Law
    • Heidi Kitrosser, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law
    • Caroline Mala Corbin, University of Miami School of Law
    • Emerson Sykes, ACLU


    • Nadine Farid Johnson, Knight Institute


    Will be provided.

    Panel 3: Academic Freedom and the First Amendment

    What is the substance, and what are the limits, of the right to academic freedom in public universities? Can democratically elected governments, or legitimately appointed university administrators, place limits on the rights of professors to express themselves—in their classrooms, their research, the workplace, or in the polity more broadly? Do students have rights not to hear certain types of speech from their professors? Is academic freedom a unique case, and if so on what grounds? 


    • Charlotte Garden, University of Minnesota Law School
    • David Rabban, University of Texas School of Law
    • Ellen Schrecker, Yeshiva University
    • Jeremy C. Young, PEN America


    • Katy Glenn Bass, Knight Institute


    Panel 4: Protecting—and Punishing—Whistleblowers

    What role do whistleblowers play in democracy, and what role should they play? Do we want to incentivize whistleblowing, or merely tolerate it? What protections currently exist for public employees who seek to blow the whistle on abuse, corruption, or illegality in their workplaces, and what are their limitations? Should we seek to distinguish between whistleblowers who reveal objective problems, and those who merely object to a government policy?


    • Kathleen Clark, Washington University in St. Louis School of Law
    • Carrie DeCell, Knight Institute
    • Ronald Krotoszynski, University of Alabama School of Law
    • Sarah Milov, University of Virginia


    • Sam Lebovic, George Mason University and Knight Institute

    Closing Remarks

    • Sam Lebovic, George Mason University and Knight Institute
    • Katy Glenn Bass, Knight Institute