Flint Police Have Free Speech Rights, ACLU Tells Police Chief in Letter

July 24, 2008

In a letter to Flint Police Chief David Dicks today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan urged him to repeal an unconstitutional policy completely banning officers from speaking to the media. The letter was written on behalf of two police officers who were disciplined for publicly criticizing the appointments of Police Chief David Dicks, Super Chief Richard Dicks and Deputy Police Chief David Forystek.

“Police officers do not lose their freedom of speech once they join the force,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “Flint police officers have a right to speak out on matters of public concern and Flint residents have a right to know what’s going on in their community.”

In June, following the controversial appointments of Richard and David Dicks as father and son police chiefs and David Forystek as the deputy police chief, the Flint Journal sought comment from reputable leaders in the Flint Police Department, including union presidents Sgt. Rick Hetherington and Lt. David Winch.

Shortly after Hetherington made comments to the media, Dicks implemented a policy that all officers were required to sign.  The policy stated that "[n]o member of the department shall speak to or release any information regarding the department and/or its employees to the news media." Consequently, Sgt. Rick Hetherington was suspended for two days and Lt. David Winch was given a verbal warning not to speak to the media.

In its letter, the ACLU of Michigan not only asked the police chief to rescind the unconstitutional policy, but also urged him to remove the discipline issued to Sgt. Hetherington and Lt. Winch from their records and restore the pay and seniority Sgt. Hetherington lost as result of his suspension. Read the letter here.

In 2003, the ACLU of Michigan won a similar case on behalf of Frenchtown Township Firefighters Union when a federal judge struck down a policy forbidding firefighters to speak to the media unless they first received the fire chief’s permission. The Court held that the rule violated the firefighters’ free speech rights regarding matters of public concern. 

The ACLU letter was written by Flint ACLU President Greg Gibbs.  It states that if Chief Dicks does not change its gag rule by August 4, the ACLU will have no alternative but to file a lawsuit. 

Chief Dicks’ gag rule on police officers is the second controversial policy, which has drawn criticism from the ACLU.  The ACLU has also blasted his policy of stopping, searching and threatening men with the crime of disorderly conduct merely because they are wearing sagging pants.

“Chief Dicks needs to be reminded that we live in a free society where police chiefs cannot dictate what people say or wear,” said Steinberg.

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