Todays burning question: Can a volunteer firefighter be disciplined for publically supporting a petition NOT to lay off two career firefighters. There’s an interesting case developing in Monroe Township, New Jersey involving the six-month suspension of a deputy chief for circulating a petition concerning the possible elimination of the fire company’s two paid firefighters.
Fire Chief Lonnie Pipero suspended Deputy Chief Scott Kivet from the Monroe Township Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 for six months, charging that he used his title and position in a way that could imply the fire company endorsed the petition to maintain two paid firefighters. Chief Kivet claims he was circulating the petition as a concerned citizen and not in his role as deputy chief. The petition was circulated after a December 29, 2009 meeting of the Fire Commissioners where firefighters were told the two paid positions could be eliminated.
Kivet, a police officer in Robbinsville, claims the suspension violates his First Amendment rights, and plans to appeal. The First Amendment provides broad protection to openly discuss matters of public concern without fear of retaliation by governmental actors. The key to triggering the protection is to speak as a private citizen on a matter of public concern. If the deputy chief was indeed acting as a private citizen, and the fire chief is deemed to be a public official (state actor), the First Amendment argument will likely prevail over the discipline. Several ifs….. On the other hand a six month suspension is kind of hard to ignore.