Tulsa Firefighters, IAFF Local 176 have filed suit against the city challenging Mayor Dewey Bartlett’s executive order prohibiting firefighters from engaging in local political activities. The order is so broad that it applies to firefighters at any time, even while off-duty.
Union President Dennis Moseby is quoted as saying “We believe that when we are off duty and out of uniform we should be treated like any other citizen.” The suit alleges that the order violates the First Amendment.
US Supreme Court case law seems to support the firefighters as well, although there has been a palpable scaling back of public employee rights. In a case decided this week, the Court was quoted as follows:
There are some rights and freedoms so fundamental to liberty that they cannot be bargained away in a contract for public employment. “Our responsibility is that citizens are not deprived of [these] fundamental rights by virtue of working for the government.” … Nevertheless, a citizen who accepts public employment “must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom.” … The government has a substantial interest in ensuring that all of its operations are efficient and effective. That interest may require broad authority to supervise the conduct of public employees. “When someone who is paid a salary so that she will contribute to an agency’s effective operation begins to do or say things that detract from the agency’s effective operation, the government employer must have some power to restrain her.” … Restraints are justified by the consensual nature of the employment relationship and by the unique nature of the government’s interest.
Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri, No. 09–1476. Argued March 22, 2011—Decided June 20, 2011
Another possible basis for the mayor’s position would be a Federal law known as the Hatch Act. That act limits the political activities of Federal employees, and by extension state and local officials who are in positions that are federally funded. However, the mayor is not publically citing the Hatch Act or his hope for a change in how the US Supreme Court interprets the Constitution to support his order. He claims his justification is in the city charter.
Here is a video update on the case.