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Officer's statement not protected by First Amendment

March 16, 2012

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled the New Albany Police Department had the right to discipline an officer whose racially charged comments made to fellow officers were leaked to the press and made public.

In Jack Messer v. New Albany Police Department, No. 22A05-1104-MI-179, the COA affirmed a judgment by Floyd Superior Judge Roger Duvall granting summary judgment for the New Albany Police Department.

The case involves the suspension of longtime officer Jack Messer, who made a controversial comment to fellow officers after an internal roll call meeting in January 2010. He said, “The biggest mistake that government made was giving those people civil rights.” After saying he didn’t mean what he had said, a complaint was not filed and his supervising officer didn’t believe a violation had occurred. But several days later, the comment was leaked to the press.

An internal police department investigation cleared Messer of wrongdoing, but a police merit commission complaint found the statement caused offense to the members of the community, raised suspicion of racism within the department, and was considered conduct unbecoming of an officer. The commission suspended him for 30 days, and on judicial review Duvall granted the department’s summary judgment motion.

Messer argued on appeal that his statement was protected by the First Amendment and the department should not have subjected him to discipline for making it. The parties agreed the First Amendment question was before the appellate court and is governed by Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 566 (1968), which held the First Amendment protected a public school teacher who wrote a letter to a newspaper in which he criticized the allocation of school funds and the manner by which the school board raised such funds. The court didn’t establish a general constitutional standard applicable to all government-employee-speech cases, but created a two-step test and held the government’s interest as employer must be balanced on a case-by-case basis against the individual and societal First Amendment interests.

Judges Melissa May and Edward Najam found that the department deserved special preference under the Pickering analysis because, like a previous case of City of Indianapolis v. Heath, 686 N.E.2d 940 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), the officer’s speech caused a disruption and the comment wasn’t made as a private citizen. The value of the speech was also low, according to the court majority, because it wasn’t made as a part of government speech.

Judge John Baker disagreed in a separate opinion that said he would have reversed the trial judge’s summary judgment grant for the police department. He determined the statement was made in private and Messer had no reason to expect it would become public and “disrupt” the department, and because of that this case is distinguishable from Heath. The statement was protected by the First Amendment, Baker wrote.

 

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