Mass, Local wins Free Speech Case
This is from the November 27th edition of the Boston Herald:
Judge nixes Malden move to halt firefighter protest
by J.M. Lawrence
Wednesday, November 27, 2002
Malden city officials cannot stop firefighters from posting signs protesting new daytime staffing levels and must rescind reprimands against five men, a federal judge said yesterday.
``We were victorious,'' fire union president Brian Parow said. ``They don't have the right to tell us to take the signs off our vehicles.''
U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns allowed a preliminary injunction against Fire Commissioner Neil Kinnon's Nov. 1 memo prohibiting the signs on fire station property without approval.
But the judge said the city could move to ban all signs ``of an advocacy nature'' from the stations.
The judge agreed with an attorney for the firefighters who said the memo amounted to a violation of the union members' First Amendment rights.
``I've seen labor disputes before and this is not a new issue,'' Stearns said from the bench.
He also enjoined the city from punishing firefighters for ``off-duty exercise of his or her First Amendment right to free expression on issues of public concern, including Fire Department staffing levels and budgetary decisions.''
Protesting the city's decision to allow daytime shifts of 18 firefighters instead of 22, firefighters have displayed signs implying the city is no longer safe.
``What If You Had a Fire and No One Came?'' read one sign.
``It's 2 a.m., Your House is on Fire, Do You Know Where Your Fire Truck Is? Ask Your Mayor,'' read another.
Mayor Richard Howard yesterday called the signs ``scare tactics'' designed to mislead residents about the debate.
``It's exclusively a dispute over the amount of overtime spending involved,'' Howard said.
He said Malden's residents can see through firefighters' smokescreen. ``I've had a handful, probably less than 10 phone calls, on the topic all throughout the time of this being in the public's eye. I think they do get it,'' Howard said.
Parow denied that potential loss of overtime is fueling firefighters' protests.
``This is a manning issue. This is a safety issue. This has nothing do with overtime. This is what we need to run the Fire Department,'' he said.
Parow rankled city officials in August for public comments he made after a man died in a fire. Parow said under the new staffing levels, the firefighter who would usually bring an infrared device for seeking victims was not at the fire.
Fire Chief Dennis J. LaFrienier, scheduled to retire this year after 31 years, said yesterday that calls to Malden firefighters have tripled since 1971, while staffing levels have fallen from 165 to 122 firefighters.
LaFrienier said he enforced the commissioner's order against the union's signs but never thought it would pass constitutional muster. ``The union was justified in crying foul,'' he said.
The judge ruled that written reprimands given to five firefighters, including Parow, must be removed from their files. Firefighters sued the city Nov. 14 in federal court after the disciplinary actions.
Stearns urged both sides to resolve the dispute. If the case continues, the judge said he is likely to find unconstitutional sections of the Fire Department's rules and regulations seeking to govern firefighters' public speech.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I love when a city tries to tll its eployees what they can and cannot do and get smacked in the face over it. Someday maybe, just maybe, the cities will learn to act aprpriately adn not trounce on the Constitution.