Federal Court Rules in Favor of Town Employees’ Right to Display “Thin Blue Line” Flag on Town Property

A resolution in Springfield Township has been implemented to prohibit the display or use of the Thin Blue Line American Flag symbol by any Township employee, agent, or consultant. The resolution also restricts the publicly visible depiction of the symbol on clothing or skin of any Township employee while on duty, and any personal property brought into Township buildings. However, the Supreme Court has concluded that this ruling violates the First Amendment.

According to the ruling in Pennsylvania State Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police v. Township of Springfield, the resolution is considered a viewpoint regulation. It allows for restrictions on employee speech, but specifically targets a specific viewpoint. Generally, the government does not have the right to regulate employee speech based on viewpoints.

Public employees have their First Amendment rights, and limitations can only be imposed when necessary for the operation of public services. The Court has weighed the interest of the employee as a citizen to comment on public concerns against the interest of the State as an employer to promote efficiency in public services.

The government has the burden of showing that the impact of the restriction on the operation of the government outweighs the constitutional interest restricted by the resolution. The Township expressed concern about racial discord, but did not provide evidence of workplace disruption caused by the Flag, nor did they show a real disruption to relations between the police and Township residents.

The resolution is underinclusive as it only restricts one form of discourse, and under the rules of the First Amendment, banning speech because it is considered ‘offensive’ is unconstitutional. This, combined with the broad application of the resolution to all Township employees, has caused the Supreme Court to conclude that the resolution violates the First Amendment.