Comments About DUI Policy Protected By First Amendment

Bill Wright worked as a police officer for the City of Salisbury, Missouri. On September 21, 2007, the City’s mayor met with Wright and the Police Chief. The next day, Wright wrote a letter on his personal letterhead, addressed to “To Whom It May Concern,” regarding the meeting that occurred on the previous day. In the letter, Wright recounted the fact that the Mayor complained that Wright had been too aggressive in “attempting to apprehend drunken drivers within the city. He stated to me that I should allow drunken drivers to drive within the city as long as they are on secondary roads and not leaving the town on highways.”

He continued in the letter that he had told the Mayor that he could not function as an ethical police officer without enforcing the DUI laws, and “I must perform my duties and continue to stop people who violate the law and issue warnings, citations, or make arrests. I cannot allow anyone to drink and drive and will arrest anyone who does so.”

Wright provided a copy of his letter to the Chief, and they discussed providing it for the members of the City Council. Wright thereafter delivered the letter not only to all members of the Council but also to a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

A week later, Wright wrote a second letter addressed to the City Council. Like the first letter, this was written on his personal letterhead. In the letter, Wright wrote: “What the mayor said to me during the meeting I had with him should never have been said to a police officer and I believe the City has a duty to ensure that this kind of thing never happens again to any police officer in the City of Salisbury.”

Within two weeks, the City terminated Wright, eliminating his position from the budget. The City cited budgetary concerns as the reason the position was eliminated. The Police Chief later testified that prior to Wright’s termination, no representative of the City had discussed with him any budgetary concerns or the proposed elimination of a police officer position.

Wright brought a lawsuit against the City, contending that his termination was in retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights. The City moved to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that Wright’s speech “did not deal with law enforcement policy generically, but rather was simply an attempt by Wright to obtain clarification regarding how to conduct himself.”

A federal court refused to dismiss the lawsuit. The Court reasoned that “Wright identifies as a matter of public concern about which he spoke, the public safety of citizens arising from the Mayor’s directive not to enforce the laws relating to driving while intoxicated. From a factual standpoint, this concern and concerns related thereto, such as the risk of consequent liability, were plainly addressed in Wright’s letters. From a legal standpoint, there can be little doubt that this involves a matter of public concern. Public safety issues are obvious examples of matters that are of concern to the general public. Indeed, criticism of government officials and policy, in itself, falls within the meaning of speech on a matter of public concern.”

Wright v. City of Salisbury, Missouri, 2009 WL 2957918 (E.D. Mo. 2009).

This article appears in the January 2010 issue