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Court upholds right to cheer Reagan shooting

By ANDREA NEAL

WASHINGTON -- A clerk-typist hopes to get her job back at a Texas county constable's office in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that she was fired illegally for applauding the attempted assassination of President Reagan.

The high court, rejecting arguments from Harris County officials, ruled 5-4 Wednesday that the dismissal of Ardith McPherson violated her First Amendment right of free speech.

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'I'm happy. I've got justice from the Supreme Court,' said McPherson, 26, who has found only temporary work since she was fired in 1981. She said she never meant to imply that she favored Reagan's death, but merely was expressing her opposition to his policies.

The case stemmed from an office conversation following John Hinckley's March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.

McPherson, then 19, was listening to radio coverage of the incident when she turned to a co-worker and declared: 'I hope if they go for him again, they get him.'

When Constable Walter Rankin learned of that remark, he fired her. She then filed a lawsuit claiming violation of her constitutional rights.

At issue in the case, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the majority, was whether McPherson's statement was a matter of 'public concern' and thus protected by the First Amendment.

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'Considering the statement in context ... it plainly dealt with a matter of public concern,' Marshall wrote. 'The statement was made in the course of a conversation addressing the policies of the president's administration. It came on the heels of a news bulletin regarding what is certainly a matter of public attention: an attempt on the life of the president.'

McPherson's lawyer, Annie Garcy, said she was delighted with the ruling and would seek a court order reinstating her client to her job with back pay from the county. McPherson now lives in Dallas.

'Had we lost the case,' Garcy said, 'it would have meant severe encroachment on First Amendment rights of government employees.'

Officials in Harris County, however, said they did not look forward to the prospect of McPherson returning to work for them.

'I think I'll throw up,' said assistant county attorney Billy Lee. 'If the Supreme Court will not give us a re-hearing on it, there's a very good likelihood that the criminal will be back over here working as a deputy.'

Lee contended that when McPherson took her job Jan. 12, 1981, she promised to uphold the law, but violated that oath by advocating the president's death.

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Constable Rankin said he would abide by the Supreme Court's decision, but did not regret his decision to fire McPherson.

'I believe in the court system of this country. I carry out the opinion of our courts,' he said. '(But) if I had it all to do over again, I'd do the same identical thing.'

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Byron White, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia disagreed with the majority ruling.

Scalia, in a written dissent, said the constable's interest in maintaining office morale and order 'outweighs any interest his employees may have in expressing on the job a desire that the president be killed.'

'As a law enforcement officer, the constable obviously has a strong interest in preventing statements by any of his employees approving or expressing a desire for serious, violent crimes,' the justice wrote.

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