In our deeply polarized political environment, the question of how a complex democracy ought to manage the speech of government employees is more important than ever. While leaks, rumors, and background briefings have always been central to U.S. politics, under the Trump presidency, these became charged sites of conflict. But the struggle between the regulatory and administrative state directly implicates the rights and political activity of all public employees. From the civil service and public sector unions to educators and researchers, the speech rights of public employees are under threat.
Permission to Speak Freely? Managing Government Employee Speech in a Democracy, a project led by the Institute’s 2023-2024 Senior Visiting Research Scholar Sam Lebovic, will examine the law and politics of public employee speech in these domains. This complex issue requires a deep dive into First Amendment law, administrative law, labor law, democratic theory, and the brute science of American political contestation, as well as the weighing of competing democratic values, such as transparency and autonomy, delegation and supervision, disagreement and consensus, and more.
By bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and experts to explore these problems, we hope to answer critical questions about the speech rights of the some 22 million public employees in the U.S. This project aims to think holistically about the problems and politics of public employee speech, offering an opportunity to clarify normative and doctrinal problems in the domains of academic freedom, whistleblowing, transparency, public sector employment, unions, public health, and among other topics.
We will examine these topics through a series of essays and public conversations, culminating in a major symposium—entitled "Permission to Speak Freely? Managing Government Employee Speech in a Democracy"—to be held April 5, 2024, at Columbia University and online.