Privately-Made Statements About Morale Unprotected By First Amendment

Peter Dahl was a deputy sheriff for Rice County, Minnesota from November 1992 until the fall of 2006. During his employment with Rice County, Dahl was assigned to a multi-jurisdictional SWAT team, served as a firearms instructor, and served on a multi-jurisdictional drug task force.

In August 2005, the Sheriff e-mailed Dahl to inquire about a purchase of badges that had been charged to Rice County. The Sheriff’s e-mail stated that the expenditure was not authorized by the Sheriff’s Department, and concluded by stating: “You have dragged us into your mismanaged personal affairs and I am getting real tired of it.”

Dahl responded with an even testier e-mail. Dahl’s response began: “Once again, another e-mail is directed at me in a hostile and condescending tone.” The message concluded with the statement: “I feel that I should relate to you that the tone of some messages we deputies have been receiving has brought the morale of this Department to its proverbial knees. As to one’s personal affairs affecting the Department, I choose to remain professionally objective before casting stones.”

The same day, the Sheriff summoned Dahl to his office. Dahl alleged that during the meeting the Sheriff stated: “Who do you think you are, you smart ass little prick?” Dahl contended that the Sheriff struck him in the chest with the heel of his hand, causing Dahl to fall backwards into a chair and injure his back. Though Dahl filed a criminal complaint against the Sheriff, the County Attorney declined to prosecute the Sheriff.

Dahl never returned to work. Dahl contended that his injuries left him unable to perform the full duties of the job of deputy sheriff, and the County stated that it had no light-duty positions. Eventually, the County terminated Dahl. Dahl responded by filing a lawsuit alleging that his termination was in response to his constitutionally protected speech – the statements about Department morale in his responsive e-mail to the Sheriff.

The federal court dismissed Dahl’s First Amendment claims. The Court observed that Dahl’s “statements were closely tied to a personal employment dispute that he had with the Sheriff, specifically the issue of Dahl’s alleged unauthorized purchases. Dahl’s statement was made privately in a personal e-mail in direct response to an e-mail received from the Sheriff. There is no evidence that Dahl, prior to the assault, attempted to inform the public about low Department morale. Moreover, his statements regarding morale only conveyed his view, and presumably the view of other unnamed deputies, that morale was low due to the tone of certain messages being received by the Sheriff. Because Dahl’s statements do not implicate a matter of public concern, First Amendment protection does not apply and Dahl’s retaliation claim fails.”

Dahl v. Rice County, Minnesota, 2008 WL 5382333 (D.Minn. 2008).

This article appears in the February 2009 issue