Free Speech for this Small Town Sheriff
A federal court in Sacramento issued a preliminary injunction this week protecting the free speech rights of a deputy sheriff in Trinity County to speak out about drug legalization and other political issues, in a suit brought by the ACLU of Northern California and the law firm of Keker and Van Nest LLP.
The plaintiff in the case is Mark Potts, a deputy sheriff in the Trinity County Sheriff's Department, who over the course of many years has written letters to the editor of the local newspaper, the Trinity Journal, on topics such as the war on drugs and gun control. The Trinity County Sheriff's Department disciplined him for expressing his political views, claiming that Mr. Potts' opinions reflected poorly on the Department. The court yesterday issued a preliminary injunction that prohibits the Department from disciplining Potts from writing further letters to the editor and removes the discipline in his personnel file, pending a final ruling in the case.
The Department had argued that because it is a law enforcement agency, it has wide latitude to prevent its employees from criticizing drug and other laws. But it's clear that if Mr. Potts had written editorials encouraging more vigorous enforcement of drug laws, the Department would never have disciplined him. The right to free speech means that the government cannot promote one side of the debate while silencing another. Particularly in an election year, when criminal justice issues are before the voters, Deputy Potts and other dedicated public servants like him have a right to make their voices heard, and the public benefits from hearing all perspectives.
Linda Lye is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.