WASHINGTON, May 15 – LAWFUEL – The Law News Network — On Wednesday, May 11, 2005, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights — along with five other civil rights, fire fighter, and police officer advocacy groups — filed an amicus brief on behalf of New York City in Locurto vs. Giuliani, 04-6840 in the Second Circuit. The Lawyers’ Committee takes the position that employers ought to discipline public safety officials for off-duty racist conduct which harms relationships between the police and fire departments and minority communities.
Locurto is an especially compelling case that involves one police officer and two firefighters, both white, who engaged in racially offensive behavior while they were off-duty during the 1998 Labor Day Parade in the Broad Channel neighborhood of Queens, New York. The City public safety employees entered a float seeking to win the funniest category with a theme, titled “Black to the Future.” They painted their faces black, wore wigs made of mops, and decorated the float with watermelons and Kentucky Fried chicken cartons. Twice during the parade, one of the firefighters re-enacted the lynching of African-American James Byrd in Texas — one of the worst hate crimes in the past decade.
The City of New York fired the three public safety officials who participated in this overtly racist conduct. The employees brought a federal lawsuit to challenge their termination on due process(see note 1) and First Amendment grounds. The Southern District of New York ruled that the employees’ termination was unlawful, reasoning that the Fourteenth Amendment rights did not outweigh First Amendment protections. See Locurto vs. Giuliani, 269 F. Supp. 2d 368 (S.D.N.Y. 2003). The matter currently is on appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The Lawyers’ Committee’s brief focuses on the discrete issue of how a police officer and firefighter’s racist conduct while off- duty can seriously impair their authority and legitimacy while on- duty. The brief observes the need to carefully weigh First Amendment freedoms against Fourteenth Amendment civil rights. Ultimately, the brief argues that it was appropriate for the City of New York to take disciplinary action here because of the potentially disruptive impact of racist speech by firefighters and police officers, especially when that speech is presented in so public a setting.
The brief takes no position on other issues in this case such as collateral estoppel, qualified immunity, and the boundaries of protected speech. In specific, the Lawyers’ Committee takes no position regarding whether plaintiffs commented on a matter of public concern.
The Lawyers’ Committee is intimately aware of the disruption that can result from off-duty, racist conduct by public safety officials, including the alienation and distrust that these acts engender in minority communities.
“We as advocacy groups are always taking public safety employers to task for not doing enough to attack racism in the workplace. Here, the employer is attempting to do so. Although we may not commend the process, the principle behind the City’s action goes to the core of what we preach,” said John Brittain, chief counsel and senior deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee.
Gibson Dunn partner Mitch Karlan, who is serving as counsel of record for the brief, added: “Our ultimate goal is to ensure positive relationships between public safety officials and minority communities.”
The brief has been endorsed by the following organizations: National Black Police Association, National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, NAACP, National Asian Pacific Legal Consortium, and the International Association of Black Firefighters.
The full text of the brief can be found at http://www.lawyerscommittee.org.