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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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.