No First Amendment Protection For Some Union Activites

Christopher Van Compernolle was the police union president for the City of Zeeland, Michigan, and an 11-year veteran of the Police Department. The Department disciplined Van Compernolle on several occasions for submitting inaccurate timesheets. Eventually, the Department fired Van Compernolle; he responded by filing a federal court lawsuit claiming that he was the victim of anti-union discrimination, and that his union activities were protected by the First Amendment.

The federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed that Van Compernolle’s union activities warranted any First Amendment protection. Van Compernolle argued that he assisted other officers with their grievances, participated in contract negotiations, and often spoke with management regarding employment issues. Van Compernolle contended that the very fact that his speech gave officers a voice in their employment made his activities a matter of public concern covered by the First Amendment.

The Court disagreed. The Court held that “while the fact that the speech occurred during the course of employment does not preclude it from being a matter of public concern, it is clear that internal grievances that are purely personal in nature are not matters of public concern. The grievance was related to employee discipline, which is generally not a matter of public concern. In the absence of evidence that Van Compernolle’s union-related activity on behalf of other officers encompassed more than internal personnel issues, the record does not show that Van Compernolle’s activity focused on issues about which information is needed or appropriate to enable the members of society to make informed decisions about the operation of their government.”

The Court ruled that “Van Compernolle must go beyond the fact that his statements and activities on behalf of other officers occurred in a union context. He must demonstrate that the focus of his speech and activities was fairly related to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community. The issues Van Compernolle sought to advance concerned overtime compensation, retirement benefits, and the personal disciplinary grievances of other officers. Van Compernolle’s description of his speech and activity does not go beyond these broad topics, which can only be characterized as internal personnel disputes.”

The Court also held that even if Van Compernolle’s speech was protected by the First Amendment, he nonetheless failed to show that he was retaliated against because of the speech. To the contrary, the Court found that the Department proved that it had an independent non-discriminatory reason for disciplining Van Compernolle – his submission of incorrect timesheets.

Van Compernolle v. City of Zeeland, 2007 WL 2015985 (6th Cir. 2007).

This article appears in the September 2007 issue