Sergeant’s Free Speech Lawsuit Dismissed Under New Supreme Court Rules

In its June 2006 decision, Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Supreme Court made it clear that public employees who “make statements pursuant to their official duties are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate the communication from employer discipline.” Many have predicted that the Garcetti decision would be construed to strip all free speech protections from public safety officers for speech made during the course of their jobs. A recent Indiana case suggests that this may be the situation.

The case involved Brenda Mills, a sergeant with the Evansville, Indiana Police Department. Mills served as a crime prevention officer (CPO), a position which interacted with neighborhood associations and other community groups in a community policing mold.

In 2002, the Department decided to move some officers from CPO duties to active patrol. At a meeting involving her supervisors, Mills expressed her opinion that the reorganization plan would not work, that community organizations would not let the change happen, and that sooner or later the Department would have to restore the old personnel assignment policies.

Mills contended that in the next several months, she was the subject of a variety of adverse actions from the Department, including the loss of a departmental car and a change of assignments. Mills brought a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that she was retaliated against because of her speech in the meeting with her supervisors.

A federal appeals court dismissed Mills’ lawsuit. Applying the Garcetti decision, the Court ruled “Mills was on duty, in uniform, and engaged in discussion with her supervisors. She spoke in her capacity as a public employee contributing to the formation and execution of official policy. If a chief of police can’t fire or demote sergeants whose views imply less than enthusiastic support, what can he do to ensure faithful implementation? The answer must be a lateral transfer; that’s how Evansville proceeded with Mills. The Department was free to act accordingly.”

Mills v. City of Evansville, IN, 2006 WL 1679408 (7th Cir. 2006)

This article appears in the October 2006 issue