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Authors

Michael Toth

Abstract

Although scholars offer a variety of explanations for the modern Supreme Court’s public employee speech jurisprudence, they share a common presumption. According to the standard account, the modern era of public employee free speech law began in 1968, with the Court’s adoption of a balancing test in Pickering v. Board of Education. Contrary to this view, this Article argues that Pickering balancing is better characterized as a relic from a bygone era rather than the start of a new one. Balancing was once the Court’s standard method of judging First Amendment claims. When Pickering was decided, however, balancing was under attack. Consistent with the overall demise of free speech balancing, this Article shows that the Court began abandoning Pickering balancing the moment the standard was announced. Pickering itself was not decided on balancing grounds, and the public employee speech cases that followed it in the Supreme Court have avoided balancing. When Pickering is put into proper perspective, it is possible to identify an overlooked explanation for the modern Court’s public employee speech rulings. This Article tells the story of how the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, unbeknownst to courts and commentators fixated on Pickering balancing, has been the true driving force behind a major area of First Amendment law for nearly fifty years.

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