Firefighter’s Parking Lot Sign Not Protected By First Amendment

Peter Yackel is a firefighter in the Township of Edison, New Jersey. On June 1, 2009, at approximately 7:30 a.m., Yackel arrived for his tour of duty at Fire Station No. 3 and parked his pickup truck in the parking lot as he always did. Displayed in the bed of Yackel’s pickup truck was a piece of poster board which read: “Choi Lies! Save Public Safety In Edison.” The poster board was supported by pieces of wood so as to make it visible.

The sign referred to Yackel’s belief that during his term as Mayor, Mayor Choi failed to uphold his campaign pledge to protect public safety in Edison. Choi was seeking reelection in the mayoral primary, which was to be held on the following day. The issue of protecting public safety in Edison was of significant importance in the campaign. In light of the upcoming election, Yackel sought to inform the public of his view on Choi’s record on public safety.

At approximately 7:30 p.m., a battalion chief asked Yackel to move his truck. Yackel complied. Two days later, another battalion chief delivered to Yackel’s personal residence a letter dated June 3, 2009. The letter bore the Township of Edison and Choi’s names on the letterhead, and stated that Yackel was being reprimanded and assessed a five-day suspension for violating the Township’s policies prohibiting political activities while on duty.

Yackel filed a lawsuit contending that the display of the sign in a public parking lot was protected speech under the First Amendment. A federal court saw things differently, though.

The Court began by stating that “the facts establish that Yackel prominently displayed the sign in the fire station’s parking lot, a location easily classified as a nonpublic forum – public property which is not by tradition or designation a forum for public communication. It is well-settled that access to a nonpublic forum may be restricted by government regulation as long as the regulation is reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because officials oppose the speaker’s view. Government facilities that are not committed to public communicative activity may regulate speech by the general public so long as that regulation is reasonable and not based on an opposition to a particular viewpoint. The Township’s policy is content-neutral because it does not distinguish on the basis of the speaker’s message, and leaves open alternative means of communication because it only bans employees from political speech while they are on-duty and/or from using Township of Edison time, supplies, or equipment in any political activity.”

The Court then balanced Yackel’s interest in displaying the sign against the Township’s interests in prohibiting on-duty political activity. The Court found that the “balancing test tips in Edison’s favor. Yackel was not disciplined for posting the sign on his truck. He was disciplined because he parked his truck, on which he had mounted a sign taking a strong position about the upcoming election, in the municipal employee parking lot during his workday. Edison’s interest in regulating the time, place, and manner of municipal employees’ political speech to ensure that citizens do not conclude that Edison endorses its employees’ political beliefs outweighs Yackel’s interest in expressing his viewpoint about Choi in the manner he chose that day.”

Yackel v. Choi, 2010 WL 1027297 (D. N.J. 2010).

This article appears in the June 2010 issue