Political Signs and Firefighters: 1st Amendment Case

A Federal Court in New Jersey last week ruled against a firefighter who claimed his department violated his 1st and 14th Amendment rights. Edison firefighter Peter Yackel parked his personal pickup truck in the parking lot of his firehouse on June 1, 2009 when he went to work. The problem was the truck bore a large political sign stating "Choi Lies! Save Public Safety In Edison." Also June 2, 2009 was election day, and Mayor Choi was seeking re-election. And city personnel rules prohibit engaging in political activities while on duty.

Later that day Yackel was instructed to move the truck, which he dutifully did. On June 3, 2009, he was informed he was suspended for 5 days. Within days Yackel sued Mayor Choi and the fire chief in Federal District Court alleging that the discipline violated his freedom of speech and the suspension without an opportunity for a hearing violated his due process rights. Yackel claimed the sign in his truck was protected speech about an important matter of public concern, and the discipline he received was retaliation.

In a well reasoned decision issued March 16, 2010, the court concluded that while the sign arguably did speak to matters of public concern, the 1st Amendment does not require that a public employee be allowed to engage in political advertising from public property while working as a public employee. In dispensing with the due process claims, the court said that while admittedly Yackel was not given a hearing before he was disciplined, he had adequate “post-deprivation” remedies to address his due process rights, including a union grievance procedure. Given that the penalty was only a five day suspension, due process did not require a pre-deprivation hearing.

Here is a copy of the written decision. Download Yackel-dismissal-opinion

No word on whether there will be an appeal. Incidentally, the Mayor lost the election.

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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