Saturday, November 12, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled this week in LeFande v. D.C. that the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department did not violate an officer's First Amendment rights when the MPD fired the officer for internal e-mails critical of MPD operations and officers, and refusing to respond to a superior's request.
The ruling puts an end to this very long-running dispute, and the very long-running, and highly contentious, relationship between the officer, LeFande, and the MPD.
This piece of the case arose when Matthew LeFande, police reserve officer with the MPD (a volunteer position designed to assist full-time officers), wrote a series of internal e-mails highly critical of certain MPD operations and MPD officers, and declining to comply with a superior's request. (The case actually started much earlier, with a suit LeFande filed against the MPD, and the MPD fired him. He raised a First Amendment claim to his termination (based on his free speech in bringing the suit), but the MPD said it actually fired him for the e-mails--thus opening this latest chapter of the case.)
The court ruled that it didn't have to say whether the e-mails constituted citizen speech on matters of public concern (under Pickering), because the MPD's interest in efficiency outweighed LeFande's interests in free speech, anyway. The court held that LeFande's free-speech interest in sending e-mails criticizing MPD operations and officers "cannot outweigh the fact that their 'disruptive force' . . . threatens workplace efficiency." It further held that LeFande's interest in sending e-mails declining a superior's request were outweighed by the MPD's interest in efficiency, because "[i]f police department leadership faced opposition from employees after every routine request, the machinery of law enforcement would grind to a halt."
The court conceded that some of LeFande's speech (especially those e-mails criticizing MPD operations) implicated matters of public concern--perhaps more than the survey questions in Connick. But it ruled that the MPD's interest outweighed LeFande's, especially "given the 'special degree of trust and discipline required in a police force.'"