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Appeals Court Rules that First Amendment Protects NYPD Officer from Retaliation for Opposing Stop-and-Frisk Quotas

In Matthews v. City of New York, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a holding by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) that retaliation for a police officer’s concerns about stop-and-frisk policy was not barred because the officer had expressed his concerns in his role as a public employee. The Second Circuit held that the officer’s public role was to execute the policy, but he had expressed his concerns about the legality of the policy in the role of a private citizen.

The officer, Craig Matthews, alleged that his supervisors in the 42nd precinct developed an illegal quota system and that any officers failing to meet the quotas were identified and subject to retaliation. After Officer Matthews began reporting the allegedly illegal nature of the quota system, the NYPD retaliated against him by giving him punitive assignments and poor performance evaluations, denying him overtime and leave, separating him from his longtime partner, and subjecting him to constant harassment and threats.

Matthews asked the SDNY to find that the NYPD’s retaliatory actions violated his free speech rights under both the First Amendment and the New York State Constitution. But the Southern District granted the City’s Motion for Summary Judgment, finding that Matthews made his complaints as a public employee, and not as a private citizen.

On appeal, the Second Circuit disagreed with the SDNY, and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Second Circuit reasoned that Matthews’ opinions about the quota system and any corresponding complaints were not related to his actual or functional job responsibilities. Therefore, Matthews made these complaints in his capacity as a private citizen. The Second Circuit reasoned that, if a public employee’s job responsibilities do not entail creating, implementing, or providing feedback on a policy, any complaints made by the employee about the policy are made as a private citizen and are protected speech.

This decision further chips away at the United States Supreme Court decision in Lane v. Franks, which held that the First Amendment can protect government workers from punishment if they are testifying under oath about job-related matters.

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