Friendship firing

BY GUEST COLUMN | APRIL 26, 2012 6:30 AM

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Holding that "no matter what one makes of associational rights, friendship cannot have greater status than political speech," the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that an Illinois village employee did not have a First Amendment right to her job.

Kimberly Benedix sued the Village of Hanover Park in 2011 after a newly elected Board of Trustees fired the village manager and abolished Benedix's executive-coordinator position. Benedix claimed the village abolished her position solely because of her friendship with the village manager and that she enjoyed a First Amendment right of association to that friendship.

An Illinois federal district court rejected Benedix's argument, holding that the village's action was protected by legislative immunity.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit held that legislative immunity did not protect the village but that Benedix could not successfully assert a First Amendment claim.

"It is common to hold a person's associations against him," the court said. "Policymaking officials … need an immediate staff of dedicated aides if they are to do their jobs — and if the results of elections are to be translated into policy."

"[I]t is an important part of the new officeholder's own right of association to be able to choose who to work with, the better to promote his ideas and policies," the court continued. "Benedix has not cited, and we could not find, any appellate decision holding that friendship is a Constitutionally impermissible basis of hiring or firing public employees."

While the court recognized that a friendship — by itself — might in some circumstances be insufficient grounds for terminating a public employee, it concluded it did not need to define those circumstances in this case. Benedix, the court said, clearly enjoyed a "confidential" position within a policymaker's office and thus was subject to changing political winds.

"An executive coordinator who reports directly to, and works closely with, a policymaker such as the village manager," the court said, "is properly classified as a 'confidential' employee who may be hired and fired on account of politics — or friendship."

Douglas E. Lee
First Amendment Center

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