Lawyers for several Pittsburgh police officers have given the Bureau of Police and city Law Department until Sept. 3 to respond to a threatened federal suit over regulations the officers contend keep them from speaking publicly about everything from crime to internal police disciplinary procedures.
Led by the American Civil Liberty Union's Litigation Director, Vic Walczak, the officers on Aug. 20 complained about six police regulations, some of them decades old, that Walczak contends violates their free-speech rights. He intends to pursue a preliminary injunction against the regs if they are not scrapped or changed.
Responding to an original Aug. 30 deadline set by the ACLU, the city law department on Aug. 27 "acknowledged problems with the regulations" and "are in process of redrafting" them, Walczak says.
The regulations in question instruct police officers not to speak about disciplinary matters to the media; not to criticize police orders or actions publicly if doing so involves anything confidential, defamatory, false or otherwise illegal; not to speak or act in ways that "demean, harass or intimidate" other officers; not to disclose "confidential or privileged" information, which extends to assignment transfers and pending orders; not to criticize the Bureau publicly before complaining up the chain of command; and not to talk to the press about an arrest without notifying police spokesperson Tammy Ewin afterwards.
Ewin says this last regulation is merely intended to let her know how to describe each case in the same way to all media representatives afterwards. "No one needs my approval to speak to the media," she says.
But Walczak believes such a rule still may keep police officers from speaking to the media on their own time about police matters.
"It never went through our mind that somebody could possibly view it as a First Amendment issue," says police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. "We're willing to work with the ACLU to phrase it in such a way" to get around this.
Still, says McNeilly: "There's some officers that have various issues that they would rather take some dramatic, extreme measure [to resolve] rather than come talk to me. I was even surprised at the tone of the letter."
Of the "several officers" represented by the ACLU and other attorneys, the letter names only long-time department critic Officer Charles J. Bosetti. Another lawyer aiding the ACLU, Cris Hoel, says the group of complainants is "growing as we speak. [It is] more than a few and less than 100." Bosetti, for one, says his group's challenge to the regs on their face -- rather than presenting a specific person harmed at a specific time -- proves the strength of their case. "It's such a blatant prior restraint, we don't need an example," he says.
"We think it is fairly easy to gauge the unenforceability of these provisions," says Hoel. "The city continues to have vague and confusing regulations," leaving the average officer "cowed into believing he cannot speak at all about matters of public concern. If police officers can't lend their opinions on public safety issues ... how is the public to be informed?"