1st Amendment not violated when firefighters ordered to attend gay pride parade, court says

A Superior Court judge in San Diego has ruled that firefighters suffered no breach of their First Amendment rights when ordered to attend a gay rights parade. The firefighters had argued that their appearance, in uniform, at the parade constituted “coerced speech,” protected by the First Amendment. The court held that firefighters, like other government employees, accept some limitations on their free speech rights when they go to work for the government.

Dana Littlefield, STAFF WRITER
The San Diego Union-Tribune
A judge ruled yesterday that San Diego city officials did not violate the free-speech rights of four firefighters when they were ordered to attend last year’s gay pride parade in Hillcrest.

The firefighters claimed that their participation while in uniform qualified as “compelled speech” under the state constitution because it could be construed as an endorsement of certain political messages.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Michael Anello noted in a written ruling that citizens must accept some limits on their constitutional rights when they enter government service.

The courts have held that governmental employees do not have the right to speak freely — or refrain from speaking — if doing so would disrupt the administration of public service, Anello said.

According to the ruling, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department acted in accordance with state and local anti-discrimination laws by participating in the parade. City officials considered the department’s presence in the event part of its “community-building activities.”

The free-speech issue was part of a lawsuit filed by firefighters Alex Kane, Chad Allison, Capt. Jason Hewitt and Capt. John Ghiotto, who claimed they were subjected to sexually charged behavior and lewd comments while riding a fire engine in the July 2007 parade.

Their lawyer, Charles LiMandri, sought an injunction to prevent the city from forcing its employees to take part in any parade. Because the firefighters were not asking for damages on the free-speech cause of action, the issue was decided by a judge rather than a jury, LiMandri said.

Anello said an injunction was unnecessary because the city has since changed its policy to make participation voluntary.

City Attorney Michael Aguirre credited the fire department for acting to change the policy, but LiMandri said that wouldn’t have happened if his clients “hadn’t taken a stand.”

On Monday, a jury deadlocked over whether the firefighters were sexually harassed during the parade, and the judge declared a mistrial.

The panel voted 11-1 against one of the firefighters who claimed the department had retaliated against him after filing a complaint.

A retrial is scheduled for Jan. 16.

Copyright, San Diego Union Tribunde