September 10, 2008

DETROIT — Flint Police Chief David Dicks will rescind his controversial gag rule on police officer speech to the press in response to a free speech lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of three police union leaders.

“We hope that Chief Dicks’ announcement signals a change of heart and that he will now honor the constitutional rights of Flint police officers,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan.  “Police officers do not forfeit their right to speak out on matters of public concern when they join the force.”

This spring, following the controversial appointments of Police Chief David Dicks and Super Chief Richard Dicks as a father and son team, and David Forystek as deputy police chief, the Flint Journal sought comment from reputable leaders in the Flint Police Department, including union Presidents Sgt. Richard Hetherington and Lt. David Winch.

On June 9, shortly after Hetherington made comments to the media, Police Chief Dicks implemented a policy that all officers were required to sign.  The policy stated that "[n]o member of the department shall speak to or release any information regarding the department and/or its employees to the news media."

Hetherington was suspended for two days under the policy, Winch was given a verbal warning not to speak to the media and Sgt. Lee Ann Gaspar stopped speaking to the press on a weekly basis as she had done before the gag rule was instituted. In August, Hetherington was fired from the department but then rehired two days later. 

On August 27, the ACLU of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit challenging the policy on First Amendment grounds on behalf of Gaspar, Hetherington and Winch.  The lawsuit asserted that police chief’s threats of discipline and termination have forced them to decline press interviews on a number of issues of public importance such as the labor disputes surrounding the controversial appointments to lead the police department and their concerns that the large number of layoffs on the force is a threat to public safety.   

At the same time the lawsuit was filed, the ACLU filed a motion asking the judge to strike down the policy as unconstitutional.  Today, in response to the motion, Flint’s attorney sent the ACLU a memo authored by Chief Dicks to all police personnel rescinding the gag rule of June 8.  The discipline for Sgt. Heatherton and Lt. Winch will also be withdrawn. 

“While we are pleased that the chief has rescinded his unlawful policy, we will carefully review any new policy he implements to make sure it is constitutional,” said Gregory Gibbs, ACLU cooperating attorney and president of the Flint Branch of the ACLU.  “I hope the City will do the right thing rather than invite further litigation.”

In addition to Gibbs and Steinberg, the ACLU legal team includes cooperating attorneys Sarah Zearfoss, Jeanmarie Miller and Muna Jondy.