If you speak out against Ken Cuccinelli’s rampant self-promotion, he’ll fire you. At least, that what a lawsuit filed last Friday claims happened to a woman who allegedly posted critical comments about him online. According to the complaint filed in federal court, Cuccinelli and his chief deputy fired Samantha Vanterpool, an attorney in the Office of the Attorney General, after she was falsely accused of posting a blog comment labeling Cuccinelli an “egomaniac” who “is NEVER in the AG’s office and solely uses the position for self-promotion.”
Although Vanterpool denies posting this comment, even if she did post it her actions are almost certainly protected by the First Amendment. While political officials do enjoy considerable latitude to fire political dissenters when they “can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved,” Vanterpool appears to have served in the non-political role of providing legal advice to the state, predominantly on questions of special education law. Accordingly, she likely enjoyed robust First Amendment protection against exactly the same kind of political firing she accuses Cucccinelli of engaging in.
As the Supreme Court explained in Pickering v. Board of Education, a similar case where a public school teacher wrote a letter to a newspaper critical of the local school board and school superintendent, government workers are “the members of a community most likely to have informed and definite opinions” about how an agency is functioning or how well a public official is doing their job. If it is indeed true that Cuccinelli is never in the office because he is too distracted by his own self-promotion, then no one is better suited to discover this fact and reveal it to the people of Virginia than someone who works in his office. Thus, the Supreme Court explained, “it is essential that” most government employees “be able to speak out freely on such questions without fear of retaliatory dismissal.”
Admittedly, Pickering also establishes that a government worker may still be fired if their speech “interfered with the regular operation” of the government, but Cuccinelli has not yet presented any evidence that this is the case here. Absent such evidence, a politically motivated firing simply is not allowed.
(HT: Matt Zapotosky)