The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court ruling that a former Vago named Ronald Godwin could be fired from his job at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Grants Pass, Oregon because sometimes “on special occasions, he wore clothes with a Vagos patch.”
Godwin worked at the youth lockup for 14 years. He served as the facility’s Volunteer Coordinator, Religious Services Director and Chaplain. He was an active member of the Vagos Motorcycle Club when he was hired.
Godwin retired from the club in 2008. He received the “Director’s Award of Excellence” for his service at Rogue Valley in April 2010, He was fired four months later after unnamed officers from the Grants Pass Police Department told facility and youth authority managers “that they wanted and expected Mr. Godwin to be fired from his position at RVYCF because of his alleged motorcycle club membership.”
His termination, in writing, was “based on (his) recent activities/involvement with the Vagos Organization.” After he was fired he went to work for a local taxi company “and at the urging of the Grants Pass Police, Mr. Godwin was fired from that position as well.”
He filed suit in federal court against the correctional facility, the Oregon Youth Authority and the City of Grants Pass in March 2012. He complained that he was terminated “for exercising his First Amendment rights to free association and free speech…for the deprivation of due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment…and for breach of contract” because at the time he was fired his employment contract had not yet expired.
On December 20, 2013, a federal district judge named Owen M. Panner issued s summary judgment against Godwin and dismissed the suit. Godwin appealed and Wednesday the appeals court ordered that the case should go back to Panner’s court and proceed.
Because Godwin was a public employee, his rights of free expression are more limited by federal case law than the free speech rights of a man in the streets but his rights are broader at work than those of private employees. The court ruled that Godwin was free to wear clothing that featured the Vagos insignia because his opinions, expressed through the insignia, touched “upon a matter of public concern.”
Quoting an earlier decision in a well known case titled Sammartano v. First Judicial District Court, the appeals court ruled that “Wearing motorcycle club insignia is expressive conduct because it conveys a message that the wearer supports or is proud to be affiliated with the organization.”
The defendants in the case had argued that the Vagos were widely perceived to be a “criminal organization.” But, the appeals judges found that only strengthened Godwin’s case because “the criminality of motorcycle clubs is a topic of ‘legitimate news interest’” upon which Godwin was free to comment.
The decision was split among the three judges. Harry Pregerson and John B. Owens voted to return the case to the lower court. Judge Carlos Bea dissented and quoted the late Antonin Scalia, who quipped in a dissent in a similar case, “No law enforcement agency is required by the First Amendment to permit one of its employees to ‘ride with the cops and cheer for the robbers.’”
For the time being, Godwin still enjoys the right to cheer for the Vagos. The case officially was returned to the lower court on Friday.