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.
There are, however, strong legal arguments against imposing these restrictions on firefighters. Perhaps the most important is that doing so violates the First Amendment right to free speech. This is one of the most dearly held of our constitutional protections, and one which the courts are most reluctant to limit. Campaign activities are considered a form of personal expression. Generally, there must be some compelling reason for the courts to allow restrictions on a person’s right to express opinions.
Any statute that is vaguely worded will be declared invalid. The law must provide adequate warning regarding those activities that are allowed and those that are prohibited. Thus, courts have insisted that campaign restrictions be clearly defined. For example, it was held that an ordinance restricting firefighters from “prominently identifying” themselves with a candidate was too vague. The firefighters were accused of violating the rule because they had placed bumper stickers on their personal cars. The court said that if bumper stickers were considered “prominently identifying” with a candidate, then it did not know where the law stopped.
Another challenge comes against limitations that are considered to be too broad. Can your employer prohibit you from campaigning in another city or county? Should the limits apply to non-partisan as well as partisan campaigns? Restrictions can be only as broad as are necessary to serve some valid and important governmental interest. It will take a stronger justification to uphold a more broad restriction. As one Rhode Island court said, the interests of the government in restricting the rights of employees to engage in non-partisan political activities were not compelling enough to warrant the intrusion on the employees’ First Amendment rights. This is the test that is most generally applied to campaign restrictions of all kinds.
There appears to have been less litigation in recent years regarding political activities by firefighters. This may be because local governments are relaxing their rules. However, many jurisdictions still have restrictions. It is important for firefighters to become involved in all parts of the political process so that political leaders are aware of the legitimate concerns of the fire service. But first, they should make themselves aware of the rules regarding political activities. And if they are vague, unreasonably broad or otherwise unjustified, then a challenge to the rules should be considered.
Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.