ACLJ Obtains Victory for Park Volunteer “Fired” for His Trump Bumper Stickers – Complete Change of State Policy
The ACLJ has obtained a huge victory and policy change within the Washington State Park and Recreation Commission (“WA State Park” or “Park”) to ensure that Park volunteers’ speech is not chilled or muzzled as a condition of their service to the Park.
Earlier this year, the ACLJ filed a lawsuit against WA State Park after our client, Gary Formhals – a former U.S. Navy Chief – was told to remove his pro-Trump political bumper stickers from his personal vehicle as a condition of his continued volunteer service and part-time employment with the park system. While Gary loved his work and had even received an “Award of Excellence” for his service at the Park, Gary believed what the Park was asking him to do was wrong and that it violated his constitutional rights. He was right.
Upon learning of the Park’s unlawful treatment of Gary, the ACLJ immediately filed suit against WA State Park and requested that the court declare the policy – as written and applied – unconstitutional and award Gary damages for the violation of these constitutional rights and payment for lost wages resulting from his forced resignation from his part-time position.
The First Amendment does not allow government officials to censor the speech of their employees unless the speech negatively impacts the efficient administration of the workplace. That was certainly not the case here. Even though Park officials knew about Gary’s political bumper stickers for years, they never did anything about them. It wasn’t until a visitor to the Park voiced her outrage about Gary’s bumper stickers, which she described as “insurrectionalist [sic],” that the Park decided to give Gary an ultimatum: your speech or your job.
The policy that was applied to the bumper stickers on Gary’s private vehicle was wildly overbroad and read as follows:
Do not express, display, broadcast, distribute or otherwise communicate to the public any personal opinions, messages or points of view while performing host duties, wearing the host vest, or while occupying the host site. This includes the display of expressive items such as stickers, flags, signs, and clothing.
As we explained previously, under the old policy, a Park employee couldn’t even engage in normal chitchat with Park visitors for fear that it would violate the prohibition on all “personal opinions, messages or points of view.” Statements like “It’s a beautiful day,” “I love the Seattle Mariners,” or “It’s right for the government to support public parks” were all forbidden.
Fortunately, shortly after the ACLJ filed the lawsuit, the WA State Park agreed to work on changing the language of the policy and removing the problematic language. The new policy will now read as follows:
The highest priorities of volunteer hosts and the State Parks Volunteer Program are public service and ensuring all park visitors and members of the public feel respected, safe and welcomed at all times in state parks. Consistent with these priorities, host’s behavior, interaction and communication with the park visitors and members of the public must be professional, friendly, polite and in a safe matter, and consistent with State Parks policies and the laws of the State of Washington – including those relating to non-discrimination, anti-harassment and respect for persons.
The new policy reinstates the important balance between maintaining the efficiency of the public parks and protecting the free speech rights of its volunteers and employees.
Upon hearing the news, our client expressed his deep appreciation for our legal fight - a fight you help support through your generosity - "You Folks are the best!!!"
We are proud to have been able to assist in not only righting a wrong but also changing the entire state policy to respect the Constitution. If your rights are being violated in this area, reach out to us at ACLJ.org/help.