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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Officer Not Protected by First Amendment for Actions at Anti-Abortion Demonstration

After a police officer was discharged for conduct during demonstrations at an abortion clinic, he sued the city claiming violation of his civil rights.  Specifically, he claimed that the city retaliated against him for his protected speech, among other allegations.  The Seventh Circuit recently ruled against him on his retaliation claim in Lalowski v. City of Des Plaines.

In 2006, a group of demonstrators gathered outside of an abortion clinic. The officer approached the demonstrators and told them he would arrest anyone who impeded traffic or stopped anyone from entering the clinic.  There was some dispute as to what happened next - one of the demonstrators testified that the officer used profanity and threats against the demonstrators, and was generally intimidating and "out of control."  The officer acknowledged that the confrontation was adversarial, but denied he threatened anyone. 

After the officer went off-duty, he returned to the abortion clinic in plain clothes and his personal car. He approached one of the demonstrators who he had spoken with earlier in the day and called her a "sinner of gluttony" and various other names.  He approached other demonstrators and accused them of using intimidation tactics like the Taliban, and called many of them names.  He testified that he was simply trying to get them to take down their signs.  Complaints about the officer's conduct were filed with the police department. Charges were filed, and he was eventually terminated for conduct unbecoming a police officer, and violation a variety of other police rules and regulations. 

The officer alleges that he was terminated for exercising his First Amendment speech rights. The court disagreed, however, finding that none of the officer's speech rights were protected under the First Amendment.  Most of his statements at the demonstration did not address matters of public concern.  Even the few statements that did touch on matters of public concern (his expression of disapproval of the use of aborted-fetus signs) was outweighed by the City's interest in maintaining discipline and harmony within the department, and fostering a relationship of respect and trust with the public. The court also considered the manner in which he expressed his speech - i.e., by ridiculing the protesters, as well as his history of disciplinary actions for similar interactions with the public. In sum, the court held that the City's interest in running an efficient and effective police department outweighed any interest the officer had in expressing his opinion to the demonstrators.

Disclosure:  Ancel Glink represented the City in this case.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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