SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In a case that balanced individuals’ constitutional rights to free speech against a government’s obligation to be transparent, Maine’s highest court ruled Tuesday that the city of South Portland could not prevent two employees from holding school board positions.

But a panel of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, in a 5-1 decision, also acknowledged that while the two city workers who brought the lawsuit proved their case, the city’s personnel policy was drafted with legitimate concerns about public positions and property being used for private political gain.

Because of that, the court upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the specific employees, but overturned the portion of the decision invalidating the city policy moving forward.

Tuesday’s decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court therefore stops short of setting a sweeping precedent in the state that could have struck down all government policies against employees engaging in political activities. Essentially, the high court ruled that each case must be considered individually, and in the case of South Portland employees Karen Callaghan and Burton Edwards, the city could not prevent them from seeking school board seats.

Callaghan has been a part-time circulation librarian for the city since 2001, while Edwards works for about four hours per week on an as-needed basis for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, according to court documents.

Both served on the city Board of Education prior to 2010 and 2011 personnel policy amendments barring city employees from seeking election to any South Portland public office or circulating citizens’ petitions, among other political activities.

Callaghan, who was on the school board at the time the amendments were adopted, was given “grandfather” status and allowed to run for re-election in 2011. She was re-elected in an uncontested race.

Edwards, who had previously served for 18 years on the board, asked to be appointed to a school board vacancy in late 2010, but withdrew after city staff questioned whether he could hold the position while working regular hours for the recreation department, according to court documents.

The two employees then sued the city to remove the restriction on seeking elected offices and political activities, and a Cumberland County Superior Court ruling found in their favor, not only lifting the prohibition on their prospective personal candidacies but entirely throwing out the city policy barring employees from seeking elected office.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided Tuesday the lower court got the ruling half right.

The state’s highest court leaned in part on U.S. Supreme Court precedents set in Pickering v. Board of Education in 1968 — which found that a Township (Ill.) High School teacher could not be fired for speaking out critically about her school board’s handling of finances — to rule that if government employees are going to be denied rights, the government in question must meet a high standard in arguing that its public credibility would be jeopardized by the employee’s activity.

“[I]t might be personally uncomfortable if the city manager was in a position to discipline a board member for some incident that occurred in the course of his or her city employment, but the manager’s discomfort falls far short of the strong showing of a necessary impact on the actual operation of city government required under the Pickering analysis before these city employees’ First Amendment rights may be restricted,” wrote Justice Andrew Mead in the majority decision.

That decision Tuesday was celebrated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the two employees.

“This decision is a victory for free speech,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, in a statement. “People do not give up their fundamental constitutional rights when they take a government job. The Law Court has made it clear that government restrictions on fundamental rights must be designed to address real — not hypothetical — problems. The restrictions put in place by the city of South Portland went too far.”

The court, however, did provide the city with a partial victory by leaving the policy language in place. Mead wrote that while city officials could not block Callaghan and Edwards from seeking school board positions, they could legally restrict other employees from seeking public offices or circulating petitions.

“At oral argument, the employees conceded that the city could lawfully prohibit some city employees from running for the board, for example, the city manager himself and perhaps supervisors or those employees with direct input into the city’s budgetary process, but they offered no principled dividing line to separate employees who could lawfully be barred from running from those who could not,” the justice wrote, in part. “We decline to usurp the role of city officials in drawing that line beyond fulfilling our responsibility to say that under the factual circumstances of this case, these two employees could not, consistent with the First Amendment, be prohibited from running or participating in board elections.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.