A federal district court judge ruled today that a Frenchtown Charter Township ordinance that prohibits firefighters from speaking to the news media about any “fire department matters” — including matters of public concern is unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan had filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Township’s firefighters’ union.

Bob Gerlach, a Frenchtown fire fighter, along with other Union members, raised serious issues of public safety at a Township Board meeting in the summer of 2001. Gerlach expressed concern that staffing levels and incident command procedures contributed to four fatalities at a recent fire.  Instead of acting on the concerns of the fire fighters, the Board passed Ordinance No.158-2 to restrict the speech of the firefighters, including that which is of public concern.  The lawsuit focused on two particular topics of public concern, those concerning safety violations and labor-relations matters within the Fire Department.

“This is a great decision for the firefighters and for the people we protect.” said Mr. Gerlach.  “The public has a right to know about what’s happening in this department that affects them.”

In December, 2001, the Michigan Department of Consumer & Industry Services General Industry Safety Division issued a report finding the Frenchtown Fire Department to be in violation of MIOSHA rules applicable to fire departments, including three violations characterized as “serious” for inadequate training, inadequate incident command system and inadequate organizational structure.  After the ordinance was passed, Mr. Gerlach was unable to respond to a reporter from the Monroe Evening News for fear of discipline and/or criminal prosecution.

In her ruling, Judge Marianne O. Battani wrote, “Plaintiffs are correct that speech dealing generally with ‘the policies, procedures, practices and/or operation of the fire department,’ or ‘the business or policy affairs of the fire department,’ covers topics of public concern. Cases from the various Circuits confirm that the performance of public works and agencies, including the fire department specifically, is of public importance. "Firefighters don’t lose their speech rights when they become government employees,” said David R. Radtke, ACLU cooperating attorney “Men and women who give so much to their community deserve far better from their government. We are very pleased that the Ordinance was found unconstitutional and that this gag order will be removed.”  

“We expect this case to have an impact far beyond Frenchtown Township ,” said Kary Moss , ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. "We know of other municipalities, including Lyon Township , with similar gag rules and we urge them to amend them to comply with the Constitution."