Waters v. Churchill
Waters v. Churchill, 511 U.S. 661 (1994), is a United States Supreme Court case concerning the First Amendment rights of public employees in the workplace. By a 7–2 margin the justices held that it was not necessary to determine what a nurse at a public hospital had actually said while criticizing a supervisor's staffing practices to coworkers, as long as the hospital had formed a reasonable belief as to the content of her remarks and reasonably believed that they could be disruptive to its operations. They vacated a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in her favor, and ordered the case remanded to district court to determine instead if the nurse had been fired for the speech or other reasons, per the Court's ruling two decades prior in Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle.The case had first been brought by Cheryl Churchill, a nurse in the obstetrics ward at McDonough District Hospital, operated by the city of Macomb, Illinois. During a dinner break one night in early 1987, she had been talking with another nurse who was considering transferring to obstetrics. In that conversation she made statements critical of cross-training practices recently implemented by the hospital's nursing supervisor, Cindy Waters, and referred to personal issues between the two. Another nurse who overheard the conversation believed Churchill's comments about Waters had dissuaded her interlocutor from the transfer, and reported it to Waters. After an investigation in which Churchill alleged she was never asked about what she had said, she was fired.There were four separate opinions. Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for a four-justice plurality that the government has a lower obligation to respect constitutional rights when it acts as employer rather than as the sovereign. Accordingly, in that situation it should not be required to meet a due process standard greater than the reasonableness of its own finding of fact. David Souter added a short concurring opinion qualifying the plurality, which he said was in fact a majority, with his insistence that in such cases the government must demonstrate that its understanding of what the employee said was not only a reasonable belief but a truthful one. Antonin Scalia concurred as well, but harshly criticized O'Connor's opinion. He read it as requiring a procedural handling of every possible adverse personnel action where First Amendment rights might be implicated, providing ""more questions than answers"". John Paul Stevens' dissent argued that the First Amendment required that the lower court determine exactly what Churchill had said before ruling on whether it was protected.Outside commentators have also been critical of the decision, since it might discourage whistleblowers. In addition to echoing Stevens' concerns, they have seen it as abandoning any concern for the truth, imposing a heavy burden on a plaintiff, relying on an overly narrow conception of the public's interest, and possibly discouraging people from entering public service. The decision resulted in a lower court changing its ruling in a high-profile case involving controversial academic Leonard Jeffries.