A federal court in Sacramento yesterday issued a preliminary injunction 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.
“It felt like I was being singled out because some people didn’t like my views on drug legalization. I’m very pleased with the court ruling, which protects my right to have my own political views. This is a win for the cause of liberty,” said Plaintiff Mark Potts.
Ajay Krishnan, a partner at Keker and Van Nest who represents Mr. Potts in the matter, also praised the ruling: “The First Amendment forbids the government from dictating the political views of public employees outside of the workplace. Just as it was unconstitutional for the government to require public employees to swear ‘loyalty oaths’ during the Cold War, the government cannot punish employees who espouse views that may be unpopular or contrary to official policy.”
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. “If Mark had written editorials encouraging more vigorous enforcement of drug laws, they 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, Mark and other public servants like him have a right to make their voices heard, and the public benefits from hearing all perspectives,” said ACLU-NC staff attorney Linda Lye.
Mr. Krishnan focuses on complex commercial disputes and intellectual property litigation. He has tried a number of cases to verdict, including three as first chair. Mr. Krishnan also has a thriving pro bono practice, and has litigated numerous civil rights cases in state and federal court.