San Antonio Within Its Rights To Limit Firefighters’ Political Activities On City Property

A federal court in Texas has ruled that the City of San Antonio was within its rights to restrict members of San Antonio Firefighters IAFF Local 624 from seeking signatures for two ballot initiatives in 2018 on certain city owned properties. Local 624 sought to have the city’s policies prohibiting political activities declared unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment.

The case goes back to February 2018, when Local 624 launched a ballot initiative to amend the city charter to allow for binding arbitration and limit the salaries of future city managers. Both initiatives were eventually successfully and adopted by voters in November, 2018.

In March 2018, Union representatives began to gather the required 20,000 signatures outside of city libraries and at a city owned senior citizen center. At the time the city had a formal policy that designated “free speech zones” at each of the libraries. Political activities were permitted within these designated zones, but prohibited elsewhere on library property. There was no policy prohibiting political activities at the senior citizen center.

City officials prohibited the firefighters from seeking signatures at the senior citizen center and limited their activities to the free speech zones at the libraries. When firefighters ignored the city’s requests to comply with the policies, the police were called to enforce them. The firefighters sued arguing that the city’s actions in (1) denying them access to the senior citizen center and (2) limiting them to the free speech zones at libraries violated the First Amendment, and constituted viewpoint discrimination. The suit also accused the city of retaliation for calling the police and taking additional actions that hampered the firefighters efforts at obtaining the required signatures.

In a ruling dated September 1, 2019, US District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez found that the library grounds and the senior citizen center were “nonpublic forums” and that the city’s policies restricting political activities were reasonable and viewpoint neutral. The court further ruled that the city did not retaliate against the firefighters by calling the police, threatening to have them arrested, enforcing the policies, and taking additional steps to advise the public of their right to refuse to sign the petitions.

Here is a copy of the ruling:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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