The former police chief and assistant chief of Jellico, Tenn., lost their First Amendment retaliation claims because they spoke about internal police affairs, a federal appeals-court panel has ruled. 

In November 2018, the citizens of Jellico elected a new mayor, Dwight Osborn, who wanted to make changes to the city’s police department. Christopher Anderson was the police chief and J.J. Hatmaker was the assistant chief.

Osborn and alderwoman Sandra Terry overhauled the police department in a way that reduced police overtime and required Anderson and Hatmaker to work different shifts. Osborn and Terry also indicated that Anderson and his department should be more proactive in dealing with homeless people by arresting more of them. Further, Terry advocated hiring a new full-time police officer and a part-time officer and recommended a particular individual.

At a City Council meeting, Anderson said he as chief should have a role in selecting a new officer. Anderson and Hatmaker also resisted certain other changes, with Hatmaker objecting to the new “micromanaging.”

One week after the meeting, Mayor Osborn suspended Anderson and Hatmaker. Then, in February 2019, the Police and Fire Committee fired both officers.  Anderson and Hatmaker sued, alleging a violation of their First Amendment free-speech rights. A federal district court ruled in favor of the city.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling in its May 2, 2022, decision in Anderson v. City of Jellico.   The panel reasoned that Anderson and Hatmaker had spoken as public employees and, thus, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos  (2006), they had no First Amendment claim.

“The speech fell squarely within their existing job duties,” wrote Judge Jeffrey Sutton for the panel. “As the senior officers in the department, Anderson and Hatmaker regularly attended city council meetings and weighed in on agenda items involving the police.”

Sutton added that the two employees “wore their police uniforms and spoke during the portion of the meeting reserved for official business as opposed to citizen complaints.”   

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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).