Updated at 2:28 p.m.
A Washington federal judge found (PDF) yesterday that the Metropolitan Police Department's policy on when officers can speak with the press is constitutional, but ruled that the department's disciplinary action against an officer who did speak with a reporter in 2009 violated the First Amendment.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg found that the department's policy regulating communication with the press struck a balance between the public's right to information and the department's need to make sure information is accurate and, in some cases, keep information secret. But he granted summary judgment to Detective William Hawkins on his claim that the police department unlawfully disciplined him for speaking with a reporter at The Washington Post.
"The Court concludes that, as a matter of law, Hawkins’s interest in speaking here outweighs the Government’s interest in muzzling him," Boasberg wrote. He found that although the department's policy was constitutional, officials failed to follow that policy in disciplining Hawkins.
Hawkins' attorneys, Anthony Conti and Daniel McCartin of Baltimore's Conti Fenn & Lawrence, could not be reached for comment this morning. A spokesman for the city attorney general's office, Ted Gest, declined to comment.
Kristopher Baumann, head of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, which was a co-plaintiff in the case, said he hoped the ruling would make it easier for employees to speak out on issues affecting public safety.
"If the department is in fact following its own procedures, then employees…that come forward and are able to report fraud, abuse, waste, misconduct or the negative impact on public safety of certain policy through the union, will be safe," he said.
Hawkins was quoted in a Post article in July 2009 expressing concern about the department's "All Hands on Deck" initiative, which he said was taking officers away from working on their regular cases. According to the plaintiffs, Baumann had authorized Hawkins to speak with the reporter through the union.
Police department officials disciplined Hawkins for failing to notify his supervisor or the public information office. He sued in federal court soon after.
In a statement today, police Chief Cathy Lanier disputed that Hawkins was disciplined. "It is my understanding that the officer received a letter of counseling for violating a long standing General Order regarding interviews with the media," she said. "These are not considered discipline by the department and are important in the supervision of employees.”
In yesterday's opinion, Boasberg found that Hawkins spoke with the reporter as a private citizen – more specifically, as a union member – and never represented that he was speaking on behalf of the police department. "Indeed, it is hard to fathom a description of Hawkins’s job as a detective that would include criticizing the Police Chief’s pet policy to the Washington Post," the judge wrote.
Boasberg then found that Hawkins' interest in expressing his opinions about a matter of public interest outweighed the department's interest in regulating his speech. The judge found that the city failed to prove that Hawkins' comments jeopardized any ongoing investigation or public safety. He also noted that the department misapplied its own policy, since Hawkins spoke while he was off-duty and didn't represent himself as a department representative.
A status conference in the case is scheduled for February 25.