Attorneys Russell and Hykel Obtain Federal Injunction to Stop Fall River from Discriminating Against Firefighter

October 03, 2019

In November 2017, Fall River Fire Lieutenant Joshua Hetzler was elected to the City of Fall River School Committee. On the same day and in the same election, Fall River amended its charter prohibit City employees from serving on the School Committee. Attorneys Ian Russell and James Hykel persuaded a federal judge to issue an injunction preventing the City from enforcing that amended charter against Hetzler. The decision stands as an affirmation that even public safety employees have First Amendment rights. Fall River allowed Hetzler to serve out his first term while working as a firefighter, but the City's attorney issued an opinion stating that the revised Charter would be enforced against Hetzler if he were re-elected. Hetzler correctly viewed the amended charter as a violation of his First Amendment rights. Normally, it would takes years for courts to determine whether the City's amended charter was Constitutional, and during that time, Hetzler would be deprived of ability to continue serving as a Fall River firefighter and School Committee member. Hetzler's situation therefore suffered a classic case of "irreparable harm" - a court decision several years from now could not adequately repair the loss he suffered while being prohibited from holding those two positions. This irreparable harm meant that he was eligible for immediate relief from a court. That is why Attorneys Russell and Hykel asked a federal court to issue a preliminary junction that prevents the City from discriminating against School Committee candidates that also work for the community as a fire fighter. A federal judge agreed and found that the City failed to establish that its interests outweigh the First Amendment rights of Hetzler - especially where Hetzler served as a School Committee member and Fire Lieutenant for two years. He wrote: "Finally, both the balance of the equities and service of the public interest weigh in Hetzler’s favor. While the City has an interest in defending “the citizens of the City [who] expressed their intent” to adopt § 4-3 of the Charter, Doc. No. 12 at 19, that interest cannot outweigh the likelihood of ongoing and impending harm to Hetzler’s First Amendment rights. Moreover, no public interest is served by holding an election that is sullied by the specter of a likely unconstitutional application of the City Charter."

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