We’re into the heat of the election season. In a few weeks, we will select leaders and make important decisions through ballot referenda that will have great effects on us at both the national and local levels. It is important that everyone in the fire service vote on Election Day. But what...
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We’re into the heat of the election season. In a few weeks, we will select leaders and make important decisions through ballot referenda that will have great effects on us at both the national and local levels. It is important that everyone in the fire service vote on Election Day.
But what about becoming more actively involved in election campaigns? Can firefighters be restricted from participating in campaigns, especially at the local level where the outcome may have a direct effect on the department itself? If so, are the restrictions valid?
Many cities and states have laws that limit the political activities of public employees, including firefighters. In some jurisdictions, firefighters have virtually complete freedom, while in others they are greatly limited. These might include restrictions on running for political office, actively working on a candidate’s campaign, raising or contributing money to a political candidate, or supporting (or opposing) a referendum issue. Some apply to all elections, while others are limited to partisan elections or campaigns within the jurisdiction.
It shouldn’t be surprising that government employees are prohibited from using their official position to influence an election. Firefighters and others should not be allowed to campaign while on duty. There should be no connection between the service we provide to anyone in our community and their political views. No one should want their tax dollars being used for political purposes.
But there is real debate over whether firefighters and other public employees should be limited in their political activities outside the job. Not surprisingly, the restrictions often have been challenged through grievances, lawsuits and other legal channels.
Widespread participation in elections is one of the basic principles of our democratic form of government. Laws that restrict campaigning by any group of citizens should be allowed only when there is some legitimate governmental interest in limiting these activities. Courts have upheld limits on campaigning in a variety of situations. Among the interests that courts have recognized in upholding restrictions are the efficiency, integrity, discipline and morale of the employees.
Campaign restrictions sometimes are justified as being necessary to protect employees themselves from pressure by their superiors or political leaders. Refusing to support the candidate that the fire chief wants elected might be harmful to a firefighter’s career, it is argued. Likewise, there have been cases where requests for political contributions were little more than a thinly veiled extortion.
This argument was adopted by a Louisiana court in a 1942 decision. This is significant because Louisiana has for many years been home to one of the most powerful political machines in our nation’s history. Likewise, there have been powerful political machines in several cities that have been built upon the loyalty of firefighters, police officers or other city employees.
Another common basis for these restrictions has been that they are a condition of employment that the employee agrees to when accepting the job. In many places, proponents of good government believe it is critical to have a professional, non-political city work force. This is accomplished by prohibiting government employees from participating in political activities.
This rationale is an old one. It was used by a New York court at the turn of the century, when it upheld a city charter provision that prohibited employees of the fire department from contributing to or joining a political organization. The court held that when a person becomes a city firefighter, he becomes subject to the department’s rules. If he does not want to abide by those rules, he is free to resign from the department.