ACLU of Rhode Island Sues to Lift Gag Rule on Firefighters Who Criticized Department on Safety Issues

December 19, 2002 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging a “gag order” issued by Anthony Fire District Chief Stanley Mruk, barring two firefighters from publicly expressing Fire Department-related concerns without first getting approval from the Chief.

“I am not aware of any footnote to the First Amendment that says that firefighters should be seen and not heard,” said John Dineen, an ACLU volunteer attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of firefighters Robert Carlow and Lonnie St. Jean.

The ACLU said in legal papers that Mruk’s order and various Fire District by-law provisions on which the order were allegedly based are a clear violation of the firefighters’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

“I want to educate the public on important fire-related issues, and we should have the right to speak without fear of punishment,” said Carlow. “As far as safety goes, there should be nothing to hide.”

The dispute arose last month after the two firefighters talked to parent-teacher organizations in the town, raising concerns about the adequacy of firefighter training and school safety. After their comments were reported in the media, Chief Mruk wrote to advise them that their comments were in violation of the “chain of command,” were disrespectful and “tarnished the Coventry Fire District’s reputation.” The letter threatened to fire them if they engaged “in any further misconduct of any kind.”

The ACLU lawsuit noted that “The First Amendment right of firefighters to speak publicly on matters of public concern, without prior approval and without threat of reprisal, has been a clearly established constitutional right for a number of years,” and that Chief Mruk’s actions have had a “chilling effect” on the firefighters’ future exercise of free speech rights.

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring that the letters to the firefighters be rescinded and that a written corrective notice be provided to all Fire District personnel affirming the First Amendment rights of firefighters, and that damages be awarded.

Today is not the first time the ACLU has gone to court to protect the free speech rights of public employees. In 1998, the ACLU succeeded in striking down a Providence Fire Department “gag rule,” and just last year in another ACLU case, a federal court ruled unconstitutional a Providence Police Department policy, which required advance approval from the Chief of Police before officers could speak to the media.

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