NYC had right to fire officer who sent racist mail, federal judge rules

Monday, October 30, 2000

Editor’s note: The U.S. Supreme Court on June 27, 2003, issued an order declining to review Thomas Pappas’ appeal in Pappas v. Bloomberg, (02-1441). The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had refused on May 13, 2002, to reinstate Pappas’ lawsuit, at that time called Pappas v. Giuliani.

New York City and its police department did not violate the First
Amendment rights of a former officer who was terminated for mailing racist
literature to various organizations, a federal judge has ruled.

Thomas Pappas, who was employed by the New York Police Department from
1982 until 1999, admitted sending more than 200 letters containing anti-Semitic
and anti-black materials to different organizations in response to
solicitations for donations.

The NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau began investigating Pappas after he
mailed racist materials to the Mineola Auxiliary Police Department.

Pappas contended during the NYPD investigation that his mailings were
“just a hobby” and a form of protesting the solicitations.

In August 1999, New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir
terminated Pappas for his racist mailings. Last January, Pappas sued in federal
court, contending that city officials violated his First Amendment rights.

Public employees who file First Amendment lawsuits must show that
their speech touches on matters of public concern and that their free-speech
interests trump employers’ efficiency interests.

On Oct. 26, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled for the
city officials in Pappas v.

“Courts have been particularly skeptical in cases where plaintiffs
have sought to justify patently hateful and inflammatory speech in terms of
‘public concern,’ ” Buchwald wrote.

Pappas contended that his mailings touched on matters of public
concern, including taxation, political history, race and religion. However,
Buchwald rejected this argument, writing that Pappas’ “conduct amounted to
private interest dressed in public garb.”

Citing the 1964 Supreme Court decision New
York Times Co. v. Sullivan
, Buchwald wrote: “Mr. Pappas’
anonymous and random mailings were not directed at, and played no part in the
‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open’ debate on public issues that the First
Amendment affords its highest protection.”

Buchwald reasoned that even if Pappas’ racist speech touched on a
manner of public concern, the police department’s interests trumped Pappas’
free-speech concerns.

“In the instant case, the police department had good reason to fear
disruption in the force and the communities it served in reaction to Mr.
Pappas’ conduct,” Buchwald wrote.

The judge cited the city’s “problems with minority communities based
on perceptions of police racism, the media coverage of Mr. Pappas’ story, and
the relatively low First Amendment value” of his speech.

The attorneys that argued the case could not be reached for

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