CARSON CITY, Nev. — A Nevada court has ruled the government cannot ban its employees from discussing their work, siding with three highway patrol troopers who were ordered not to speak to outsiders about the police dog patrol program.
The troopers sued their department in 2012, claiming administrators sabotaged their police dog drug-detection unit and retaliated against them after media reports of alleged illegal searches.
The appeals court said government employers have significant and legitimate interests in managing the speech of their employees.
“We make clear today, however, that a public employer generally may not subject all employee speech regarding a particular government program — whether fact or opinion, and whether liable to disrupt the workplace or not — to a blanket ban,” the court panel said.
The complaint was centered around an email sent by highway patrol Major Kevin Tice on Feb. 24, 2011. In the message, Tice forbade “direct contact between K-9 handlers or line employees with ANY non-law enforcement entity or persons for the purpose of discussing the Nevada Highway Patrol K-9 program,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/2wAxP31 ).
Troopers Matt Moonin, Donn Yarnall and Erik Lee challenged the email’s constitutionality.
The panel of the appeals court ruled the policy imposed by Tice’s email violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing free speech rights.
U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks in 2015 ruled in favor of Moonin’s First Amendment claim, rejected Lee’s speech claim and did not decide Yarnall’s claims because he had died.
The appeals court panel, ruling on Moonin’s claims, found that it was clearly established in 2011, when Tice sent the email, that such a broad restriction on employee speech could not survive First Amendment scrutiny.
The panel said Tice, who is no longer with the department, was not entitled to qualified immunity for his actions. Hicks’ finding of partial summary judgment in favor of Moonin was upheld by the panel.