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Police chief allowed to attack gag order issued by city officials

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         SIXTH CIRCUIT         Prior Restraints         Oct 11, 1999    

Police chief allowed to attack gag order issued by city officials

  • A federal appellate court in Cincinnati reinstated a police chief’s claim that an allegedly racially-motivated gag order violated his First Amendment rights.

A three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) in late September reinstated Columbus Police Chief James Jackson’s claim that an allegedly racially-motivated gag order placed on him by city officials during an investigation into his official conduct violated his First Amendment rights. A federal trial judge in Columbus had dismissed Jackson’s claims, but the court of appeals ruled that Jackson can pursue his free speech claims.

After noting that “the state has an interest in regulating the speech of its employees,” the appellate court found that Jackson could proceed with his claims because the speech in question involved matters of public concern and the trial court had not found that the city’s interest in promoting public efficiency outweighed Jackson’s interest in communicating about public concerns.

“Jackson is not an ordinary employee, but rather is a high-profile member of the Columbus community,” the court wrote. “Because the investigation involved allegations of corruption and abuse of power within the Division of Police, as well as the City’s allegedly racial motivations, the gag order could be construed as covering more than a private employment dispute. Such social and political issues are generally matters of public concern.”

Columbus Director of Public Safety Thomas Rice — who is white — had informed Jackson that he could not speak during the ongoing investigation into his allegedly improper behavior as chief of police because of concern that in Jackson’s discussions with the media “the issue of race would be raised, that it is a sensitive issue, and that it might ’cause great concern within the black community.'”

Jackson serves as Columbus’s first African-American chief of police. During the fall of 1996, the mayor’s office announced that it had begun an investigation into charges of incompetence and gross neglect of duty. In December 1996, the Columbus Municipal Civil Services Commission found that two of the charges had been proven.

(Jackson v. City of Columbus; Counsel for Jackson: Scott A. Campbell, Columbus)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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