ACLU Files Lawsuit to Protect Firefighters' Speech Rights
DETROIT -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit today in federal district court on behalf of a Frenchtown Charter Township firefighters’ union challenging the constitutionality of the township ordinance that prohibits firefighters from speaking to the news media about any “fire department matters” -- including matters of public concern.
Last year, Bob Gerlach, a Frenchtown fire fighter, along with other Union members, raised serious issues of public safety at a Township Board meeting. Gerlach expressed concern that staffing levels and incident command procedures contributed to four fatalities at a recent fire. Instead of acting on the concerns of the fire fighters, the Board passed Ordinance No.158-2 to prohibit similar disclosures in the future.
“We filed this lawsuit because we can’t talk about things that the public should know about,” said Mr. Gerlach. “If we do, we face being fined or even jailed.”
In December, 2001, the Michigan Department of Consumer & Industry Services General Industry Safety Division issued a report finding the Frenchtown Fire Department to be in violation of MIOSHA rules applicable to fire departments, including three violations characterized as “serious” for inadequate training, inadequate incident command system and inadequate organizational structure. Mr. Gerlach was unable to respond to a reporter from the Monroe Evening News for fear of discipline and/or criminal prosecution.
“The citizens of Frenchtown are being deprived of necessary information and can’t be ensured that public officials are acting responsibly if there is retaliation against public employees who bring issues of public concern to light,” said David R. Radtke, ACLU cooperating attorney.
To date, members of the Frenchtown Fire Department have been unable to speak to the media about the MIOSHA violations or any other fire department matters of public concern for fear of discipline and/or criminal prosecution.
Firefighters are public servants with the same constitutional rights as all other citizens,” said Kary Moss, ALCU of Michigan Executive Director. “Men and women who give so much to their community deserve far better from their government. We are confident the Ordinance will be found unconstitutional and that this gag order will be removed.”