A fairly little known aspect of the First Amendment is known as “freedom of association.” This freedom protects an individual’s right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural purposes, even if the association is with an unpopular organization. In the past, courts have considered how freedom of association applies to law enforcement officers who were members of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In a recent case, a federal magistrate in Texas assessed how freedom of association applied to an officer fired for his membership in a motorcycle club.
Michael Colbert started working with the City of McKinney, Texas Police Department as a Field Training Officer on June 1, 2004, and had an impeccable service record. Colbert also loves riding motorcycles. As the Court put it, “it is his hobby, passion, and part of his lifestyle.”
On May 7, 2007, Colbert, along with other active law enforcement officers with a passion for riding motorcycles, started a motorcycle club called the Dirty Bastards. The Court’s description of the Club is fairly striking: “The Club, with 20-25 members, is primarily a private, social group with similar interest and lifestyles that often participate in charity events. The members share deep attachments and commitments and associate with one another as a special community, not only because of common thoughts, experiences, and beliefs, but also because they share distinctively personal aspects of their lives through their love of riding and lifestyle. Membership is by invitation only and potential members must go through an initiation process in which they must be sponsored by an existing member, attend private club events, prove they do not have any felony convictions, and eventually be voted in as a member of the Club by the unanimous vote of all members.
“The members meet, gather, socialize, ride and identify themselves as an organization with common ideas, interest, and lifestyles. They wear attire and/or paraphernalia that identify them with the Club when they meet and/or ride. Each member earns a ‘road name’ that is given to them by the other members. The ‘road name’ that is given remains with the rider and is considered a symbol and example of the brotherhood that is shared.”
Other officers of the Department were also members of the Club. Club members did not wear or exhibit Club attire, affiliation, or paraphernalia while on duty at the Department. Club members also did not wear or exhibit Department uniforms, affiliation, or paraphernalia while engaging in Club activities.
Assistant Chief Randy Roland became aware of the Club. He immediately made it known that he did not like motorcycle clubs or any of the officers’ involvement in the Club. When a member of the Club died in an accident, Colbert was interviewed by a local newspaper. Though Colbert did not identify himself as a police officer, the Department launched an investigation into the Club.
Colbert was placed on administrative leave and was required to identify the other Department officers who were members of the Club. During the investigation, Colbert was asked questions such as, “How many times have you gone to a strip club as a Club member? How many times have you ridden intoxicated? Have you ever been kicked out of an establishment? Have you ever been in a fight?”
Other members of the Club were told, “It’s in your best interest if you quit the Club.” The Department even promised or gave promotions to other officers if they quit the Club. As a result, all other officers from the Department left the Club, with the exception of Colbert.
The Department fired Colbert for his activities with the Club. The Department reported a dishonorable discharge to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. As a result, Colbert was unable to find subsequent employment in law enforcement after he was terminated from the Department.
Colbert sued the City, asserting violations of his rights to free speech under both the United States Constitution and the Texas Constitution, and freedom of association under the United States Constitution. The City immediately sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that Colbert’s activities with the Club were not constitutionally protected.
The Court rejected the City’s request. The Court found that “the Supreme Court has recognized a right to associate for the purpose of engaging in those activities protected by the First Amendment – speech, assembly, petition for the redress of grievances, and the exercise of religion. The Constitution guarantees freedom of association of this kind as an indispensable means of preserving other individual liberties. Such intimate relationships must at least involve deep attachments and commitments to the necessarily few other individuals with whom one shares not only a special community of thoughts, experiences, and beliefs, but also distinctively personal aspects of one’s life.
“The Court will consider these factors to determine whether Colbert’s association is sufficiently private. First, the Club is relatively small with only 20 to 25 members. Its purpose is purely social, and the members gather, socialize, and share common thoughts, ideas, and interests. The Club is selective in choosing its members. A prospective new member must be sponsored by an existing member, must go through a five or six-month selection process, and be voted in unanimously by the other members of the Club. The members are extremely close to each other, and form a community with common lifestyles. The Club conducts private events from which others are excluded. After considering these factors, the Court finds that Colbert has pleaded sufficient facts to support his freedom of association claim.”
Colbert v. City of McKinney, Texas, 2013 WL 3368237 (E.D. Tex. 2013).