During the holiday period, the Second Circuit issued a long (and I do mean LONG — 77 pages!) decision regarding whether Connecticut corrections officers could belong to the Outlaws Motorcycle Club

The Second Court upheld the dismissal of First Amendment and other constitutional claims brought by several fired corrections officers who had challenged their firings. They contended, in Piscottano v. Murphy (download here) that their participation in the Club, which the government regards as a criminal enterprise, violated their rights to Freedom of Association.  The Court rejected that claim.  (The Hartford Courant’s report can also be read here.)

Wait a Second Blog, has the initial details:

As the Court of Appeals likes to do, it uses this case to flesh out the state of the law on the right of association under the First Amendment, outlining how the Supreme Court has made it easier over the years to allow the government to restrict certain First Amendment freedoms among public employees.

The Court of Appeals first reviewed the Supreme Court’s latest pronouncements on the regulation of a public employee’s outside activities. Citing San Diego v. Roe, 543 U.S. 77 (2004), the Court stated that the government has leeway to discipline an employee whose outside speech or associations are detrimental to that operation. It is true, the Second Circuit held, that the plaintiffs in this case engaged in a "protected" association with the Outlaws in that their involvement with the organization raised a matter of "public concern" under the First Amendment. This is because, while the Outlaws Motorcycle Club does not as an organization engage in "public concern" speech, that organization’s questionable existence itself would raise concern among the public.

But while "public concern" speech is protected by the First Amendment, the analysis does not end there. The government can still win the case by showing that this associational relationship can hurt governmental operations. Since the plaintiffs are corrections officers associating with an organization with a mission at odds with law enforcement, they can be fired for that association, overriding the First Amendment claim. Moreover, since membership in a large and non-selective social club like the Outlaws does not represent the kind of intimate (family) relationship for which you cannot be punished at work, the right of "intimate association" under the First Amendment does not help the corrections officers, either.

There are a few other notable aspects to the case to point out briefly.

  • The case was argued in February 2006 — thus, the case took nearly two years to decide. The next time you have an appeal before the Second Circuit, don’t presume the wheels of justice will move quickly.
  • It appears to judges focused to some extent on the corrections officers’ denials of their knowledge of the criminal activities of the Outlaws group and their seeming denials of actually participating in the group:

In sum, on this record, we think it plain that Piscottano,Kight, and Vincenzo, by, inter alia, repeatedly consorting with the Outlaws and wearing Outlaws colors and apparel in public–even at such times as they were not members of the Outlaws–engaged in expressive activity approving of the nature of the Connecticut chapter of the Outlaws, of the national Outlaws organization, and of other Outlaws chapters.

The fact that law enforcement agencies believe the Outlaws and many of its chapters engage in criminal activity is sufficient in itself to make the nature of those entities a matter of public concern.

  • An interesting question is whether courts would come to the same result for a private employer. After all, Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-51q purports to apply the reach of some constitutional claims to private employers.   It is plain from reading the decision that the particular position held by the corrections officers (semi- law enforcement) was a factor in the Court’s decision.  Would the Court reach the same result for a newspaper delivery person?  That’s simply an open question at the point.  But at least under Sec. 31-51q, the employer would have an additional defense that such actions may "substantially interfere" with the employee’s performance or the working relationship.