August 19, 2016 - For 14 years, Ron Godwin worked as the chaplain, religious services coordinator, and volunteer coordinator at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility (RVYCF) in Grants Pass. Ron loved his work and was deeply appreciated by the youth he served, the volunteers he worked with, and his coworkers.
By all accounts, he was a fantastic employee. Ron even received an award for his excellent service, which described him as “the glue” that held the facility together. However, three months later, he was abruptly suspended after being seen riding his motorcycle with members of the Vagos Motorcyle Club and wearing their logo on his jacket. After a brief investigation, the Oregon Youth Authority fired him.
Freedom of speech and association for government employees is an important right protected by the First Amendment. A public employee cannot be fired because he spends his hours outside of the work environment associating with a certain group unless this association is disruptive to the workplace. In Ron’s case, he was fired because of his lawful expression and association related to the Vagos motorcycle club. Nothing suggested his activities did, or were even likely to, disrupt his work.
With the help of the ACLU of Oregon, Godwin filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging his free speech and association rights were violated. Unfortunately, the district court dismissed the lawsuit before it ever got to a jury. However, last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal holding that Mr. Godwin had engaged in protected speech and association, and his interests in that regard outweighed any competing administrative interests of his employer. His case will now go back to the trial court, absent further appeal or settlement.
ACLU volunteer attorneys Cody Hoesly of Larkins Vacura Kayser LLP and Sara Staggs of The Law Offices of Sara Staggs, donated their time to work on Ron Godwin’s case on behalf of the ACLU of Oregon. Attorney Sam Hochberg of Oregon’s Aid to Injured Motorcyclists and Confederation of Clubs also worked on the case with assistance from lawyer Chris Bottoms.