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Locurto v. Giuliani - 447 F.3d 159 (2d Cir. 2006)

Rule:

Where a Government employee's job quintessentially involves public contact, the Government may take into account the public's perception of that employee's expressive acts in determining whether those acts are disruptive to the Government's operations. Moreover, the disruption need not be actual; the Government may legitimately respond to a reasonable prediction of disruption. All that said, it still must be the case, of course, that the concern for disruption, rather than some other, impermissible motive, was the actual reason for the adverse employment action. And, even after demonstrating that a concern for disruption was its true motivation, the Government must also persuade a court that its interest in preventing disruption outweighed the employee's individual free speech interests. 

Facts:

Plaintiffs former New York Police Department ("NYPD") officer Joseph Locurto and former New York Fire Department ("FDNY") firefighters Jonathan Walters and Robert Steiner brought filed a lawsuit in federal district curt against defendants former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former police commissioner Howard Safir, former fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen, and the City of New York. Plaintiffs alleged that that they were illegally fired from their positions in the city's police and fire departments in retaliation for their participation in a Labor Day parade on a float that featured mocking stereotypes of African-Americans, in violation of their exercise of free speech. The district court entered judgment for plaintiffs, holding that they were discharged, not on any legitimate grounds, such as the disruption or threat of disruption that their actions had caused to the operations of the police and fire departments, but in retaliation for the content of their speech, and hence in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Defendants appealed.

Issue:

Were plaintiffs' First Amendment rights violated when they were discharged from employment?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed the district court and remanded the case with instructions to enter judgment for defendants. The appellate court reconciled a Government employee's right to engage in protected speech with the right of a Government employer to protect its own legitimate interests in performing its mission. Assuming that plaintiffs were speaking on a matter of public concern, the appellate court disagreed with the district court's legal conclusion, based largely on the timing of the firing decision, that the dismissals were retaliatory or otherwise improper. The evidence was overwhelming that defendants were motivated primarily by a concern that the public, and particularly members of minority communities, would regard the police and fire departments as racist. The court held that defendants fired plaintiffs out of a reasonable concern for disruption. Defendants' interest in maintaining a relationship of trust between the police and fire departments and the communities they served outweighed plaintiffs' expressive interests. The judgment of defendants was reasonable, it was the clear motive for plaintiffs' dismissals, and it outweighed plaintiffs' individual First Amendment interests in participating in a Labor Day parade on a float that featured mocking stereotypes of African-Americans.

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