WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday let stand a $30,000 verdict won by a city library employee in Santa Ana who was reprimanded after she denounced the library director before the City Council.
The 1st Amendment protects the right of a public employee to speak out on "a matter of public concern," even when it involves a labor dispute within an agency, the courts said.
But the 1st Amendment does not shield a public employee who crudely ridicules a co-worker by putting her face on a photo of a lewdly posed nude model, the courts said in a second case.
The justices rejected a free-speech claim brought by a Massachusetts man who was hit by a $35,000 verdict after he copied the lewd photo collage and passed it around the office.
The two cases illustrate a trend for judges to weigh free-speech claims based on the public value of expression, legal scholars said.
"When the speech is not linked to a matter of public concern, there's not a 1st Amendment problem" in punishing the speaker, said professor Rodney A. Smolla of the College of William and Mary, commenting on verdicts involving sexual harassment in the workplace.
For decades, Supreme Court justices have said that the Constitution protects expression that is "wide-open and robust," at times even "offensive and disagreeable." As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, the 1st Amendment protects not just reasonable ideas but also "the expression of opinions that we loathe."
But those statements came in rulings challenging laws that infringe on free speech. When juries impose damages in free-speech-related cases, the high court historically has been reluctant to intervene.
There are two key exceptions. In the landmark New York Times vs. Sullivan case of 1964, the court said that the 1st Amendment generally forbids libel verdicts against the press if they arise from honest mistakes in reporting the news.
In 1988, the court expanded that rule to say that the 1st Amendment protects a truly outrageous, satirical put-down of a "public figure." That decision, in Hustler vs. Falwell, threw out a $200,000 verdict won by the Rev. Jerry Falwell after an adult magazine mockingly portrayed him as a drunk who had sex in an outhouse.
The Santa Ana case involved both a workplace dispute and a matter of public concern.
Barbara Lambert, a union activist at the city library, told the City Council about bad morale there. Library Director Robert Richard ruled by fear, she said: "It is leadership by intimidation."
Two weeks later, Richard put a reprimand in her file and said that her comments "constitute insubordinate behavior."
She filed a lawsuit, and U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi ruled that the reprimand violated her free-speech rights. Her comments about mismanagement, he said, are "clearly a matter of serious public concern." A jury in Los Angeles awarded her $30,000 in damages, to be paid by the city. A separate award of $86,000 in fees for her attorney is still pending.
On appeal, the city attorney in Santa Ana insisted that her speech was more akin to an "internal grievance."
"This was really a private concern. They were unhappy with the library leadership. They wanted [Richard] out," said Assistant City Atty. Robert J. Wheeler.
But Lambert's lawyer, Paul Crost of Orange, said the case shows how "city bureaucrats" want to force "employees to go through channels and to maintain as little public awareness as possible. This wasn't an internal matter. She wanted to bring this issue to the attention of public officials."
Without comment, the justices rejected the city's appeal in the case (Santa Ana vs. Lambert, 95-577).
Lambert was jubilant Monday. "That is the most wonderful thing I've ever heard," she said in a phone interview from her home in Santa Ana. "It's good to get it over with."
But Lambert, 58, who was the union representative for library workers, expressed reservations about the current state of the libraries in Santa Ana. "I felt the libraries were being mismanaged," she said, "and they are still being mismanaged."
Lambert said she was transferred to the city's public works department to work as a senior office assistant in 1992 after downsizing in her library department, technical services. She said she recently retired, effective Dec. 29, largely for medical reasons.
The Massachusetts case drew the attention of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, which represented the union leader, who needed psychological counseling after seeing the crude photo of herself.
"Our position is that in the workplace, the 1st Amendment has to be tempered," said Martha F. Davis, a NOW Legal Defense Fund lawyer. Free speech that might be acceptable on the street "can be regulated in the workplace, where people are there to do a job and should not have to tolerate this kind of harassment," she said.
The case began in 1987 when Sylvia Bowman, then 60, ran for the presidency of a state public employees union. David Heller, a co-worker who supported her rival, cut out her picture from a flier, pasted it on a photo of nude model and made five copies.
The photo was passed around and Bowman later saw it.
Disgusted and humiliated, she filed a suit and won $35,000 in damages for "intentional infliction of emotional distress" and sexual harassment. The Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the verdict on a 5-2 vote, with the two dissenters contending that the state election made her a public figure.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz appealed the case (Heller vs. Bowman, 95-393). The Massachusetts verdict "amounts to nothing less than a judicial end run around" the 1988 decision in the Hustler magazine case, he said.
* Times correspondent Jeff Kass contributed to this story from Orange County.