Micah Phillips began working for the Dallas, Texas Fire Department in April 1999. He was working as a fire dispatcher when, in December 2011, he announced his candidacy for the Dallas County Commissioners Court. The City fired him, citing a provision in the city charter that employees who run for elective office within Dallas County “shall immediately forfeit his or her place or position with the City.”
The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Phillips’ discharge. While the Court had no doubt that Phillips’ actions in running for office were political speech potentially protected by the First Amendment, it found that the City’s interests overrode Phillips’ free speech rights.
The Court observed that “Phillips is not the first nonsupervisory government employee to challenge a legal scheme that limits public employees’ political activities. Indeed, there is a long history of similar challenges both in the Supreme Court and in this court, and perhaps an even longer history of laws like the ones at issue here. The Supreme Court has articulated four governmental interests supporting laws limiting public employees’ political rights. First, federal employees ‘should administer the law in accordance with the will of Congress, rather than in accordance with their own or the will of a political party.’ To ‘serve the great end of Government – the impartial execution of the laws – it is essential,’ the Court recognized ‘that federal employees, for example…not run for office on partisan political tickets.’ Second, and relatedly, employees should also not ‘appear to the public’ to be influenced by politics. Third, employees ‘should not be employed to build a powerful, invincible, and perhaps corrupt political machine.’ Finally, these laws serve to protect federal employees, allowing them to be free ‘from express or tacit invitation to vote in a certain way or perform political chores in order to curry favor with their superiors rather than to act out their own beliefs.’
“This Court has faithfully adhered to the Supreme Court’s cases, repeatedly upholding similar policies, regulations, and statutes against First Amendment challenges. Phillips argues that the City could not simply adopt the interests articulated by the Supreme Court. Instead, he contends, the City must put forward specific reasons for how his particular candidacy has endangered the City’s interests. We do not see why this must be so. The Supreme Court has held that ‘for regulation of employees it is not necessary that the act regulated be anything more than an act reasonably deemed by Congress to interfere with the efficiency of the public service. There are hundreds of thousands of United States employees with positions no more influential upon policy determination than [the mint roller involved in one case]. Evidently what Congress feared was the cumulative effect on employee morale of political activity by all employees who could be induced to participate actively. It does not seem to us an unconstitutional basis for legislation.’
“This Court has time and time again favored governments against First Amendment challenges to laws more far-reaching than the City’s here. Put simply, the governmental interest in fair and effective operation of the…government justifies regulation of partisan political activities of government employees.”
Phillips v. City of Dallas, 2015 WL 1449903 (5th Cir. 2015).