A federal court may decide whether Gwinnett County can discipline firefighters for wearing their uniforms to public meetings.
The county prohibits employees from wearing their uniforms when not on duty, but 16 firefighters wore their work attire to a County Commission meeting where they believed the fire department budget would be discussed. Two firefighters said they were later “verbally harassed” and disciplined by their superiors for doing so.
In June, the two filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, saying Gwinnett officials illegally retaliated against them.
Marcus Keegan, the firefighters’ attorney, said the county’s actions discourage government employees from exercising their First Amendment right to express opinions on public issues.
“My clients, just like any other resident of Gwinnett County, have the ability and the right to freely express themselves to their government,” Keegan said. “They did so. They did it politely. They shouldn’t be punished as a result.”
Gwinnett County officials declined to comment on the litigation. In court records, Gwinnett attorneys say wearing a firefighter’s uniform is a privilege, not a right, and the county has the authority to control the use of the uniform.
The lawsuit stems from the firefighters’ actions at a July 2014 commission meeting. Stephen Cahn, Dennis Pishock and 14 other firefighters were off duty but wearing their uniforms. It’s unclear from the lawsuit if others were disciplined.
They expected commissioners to discuss the fire department budget, though the topic did not come up at the meeting. According to the lawsuit, the firefighters did not speak at or disrupt the meeting.
The next day, Pishock was pulled away from his shift and “interrogated,” “verbally harassed” and “embarrassed” by two superiors, according to the lawsuit. He later received what the lawsuit says was an unjustified negative performance appraisal.
Cahn also was disciplined and was reassigned to another station. The lawsuit says he later was passed over for promotions. He recently retired.
A federal court in 2007 upheld a Gwinnett policy against off-duty police officers wearing uniforms to public meetings. In rejecting an officer’s lawsuit, the court ruled the police department “has significant interests in maintaining tight control over its official symbols of authority,” including police uniforms.
Keegan, the firefighters’ attorney, said such a policy might be defensible if it were upheld consistently. But he said the fire department has not enforced its policy consistently.