Newseum First Amendment Newsroom Diversity
First Amendment Center
First Amendment Text
Research Packages
First Amendment Publications

Today's News
Related links
Contact Us

spacer graphic

Truth may set you free, but 'vulgar' quote will just get you in trouble

By The Associated Press


Printer-friendly page

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee did not violate an employee's right to free speech when it ordered her to stop using a "vulgar" quote in e-mail messages, a federal judge has ruled.

Mary Pichelmann filed a lawsuit after the university ordered her to stop using a quote from feminist Gloria Steinem in messages she sent from her university e-mail account. The quote was "vulgar" and "inappropriate," according to the university.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa dismissed the suit and sided with the university's claim that the quote was not protected by the First Amendment right to free speech because it didn't address a matter of public concern.

Pichelmann attached the phrase to personal and work-related e-mail messages she sent from her university account. It was a quote Steinem used in speeches: "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off."

Pichelmann, 40, of Milwaukee, was a student and part-time clerk in the university's School of Allied Health when the signature came under fire. She has since graduated from the school with a social work degree and is employed as a clerk in the Graduate School, she said.

Pichelmann filed her suit a month after Russell Lambrecht, dean of the School of Allied Health, and professor Mary Madsen, chair of the school's department of Health Sciences, ordered her to remove the quote, she said.

Pichelmann described herself as a "peace activist," and said the quote "perfectly reflected me and my activism." She said she planned to appeal the decision.

The university objected to the quote because it was inappropriate, not because of its content, the school said in court documents.

Judge Randa called the quote a "bastardization" of a Gospel passage that reads: "And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free."

The First Amendment protects only certain types of speech by a public employee and an employee may have to "yield to the public employer's interest in workplace efficiency and decorum," Randa said.