The case involved the termination of former Chandler Police Department employee Ronald Dible, who along with his wife Megan began running an adult site in September of 2000, according to court documents. The department first became aware of Dible’s website in January 2002, at which time Dible was placed on administrative leave, and an internal investigation was launched.
In its ruling, the court expresses a very dim view of the Dibles’ conduct and their website, repeatedly referring to their actions as “vulgar,” “indecent” and other disparaging terms. The court also found that the nature of the Dibles’ expression did not rise to socially valuable speech.
“The Dibles did not intend to express any kind of message or engage in social or political commentary through the material they posted on their website,” the court wrote. “They participated in those activities to make money; it was as simple as that.”
The court placed great stock in testimony of other police officers who stated that the Dibles’ actions created problems for the Chandler police force at large. The court also focused on the negative publicity surrounding their website once the media caught wind of the site and began reporting on it.
“The result of that publicity was disquieting to say the least,” the court said in its decision. “A police lieutenant assigned to look into the situation spoke to a large number of officers and others, [and] found that it had severely impacted their working situation, and declared that police officer morale ‘really hit bottom.’”
While the court conceded that sexually explicit content is, unless deemed legally “obscene,” protected by the 1st Amendment, it ruled that the right of the Chandler Police Dept. to protect its image and maintain the respect of the public gives them broad authority to terminate officers who fail to meet the standards of conduct required by their employer.
“The public expects officers to behave with a high level of propriety, and, unsurprisingly, is outraged when they do not do so,” the court wrote in its decision. “The law and their own safety demands that they be given a degree of respect, and the sleazy activities of Ronald and Megan Dible could not help but undermine that respect. Nor is this mere speculation.”
While he concurred with the court’s ruling, Judge William C. Canby wrote a separate concurrence, in which he took issue with certain aspects of the decision —his peers’ clearly dim view of sexually explicit content, in particular.
“I recognize that pornography, although apparently popular, is not a very respected subject of 1st Amendment protection in many quarters,” Camby wrote. “The majority opinion here reflects that distaste, variously characterizing Dible’s expressive activities as ‘vulgar,’ ‘indecent,’ ‘sleazy’ and ‘disreputable.’ "But vigorous enforcement of the free speech guarantee of the 1st Amendment often requires that we protect speech that many, even a majority, find offensive. Pornography, and sexual expression in general, is protected by the 1st Amendment when it does not constitute obscenity (and there is no showing that Dible’s expression meets that extreme standard). We should accept that fact and accord Dible’s expression the constitutional protection to which it is entitled.”
Despite his more measured view of the Dibles’ conduct in operating the website, Camby still concurred with the majority’s legal analysis, and concluded that Ronald Dibles’ firing was justified by the fact that Dible initially misled investigators as to his association with the site.
“I concur in the judgment, however, because the record demonstrates that any rational trier of fact would find that Dible would have been discharged for making false statements to police department investigators, had he not been discharged for his website activity,” Camby wrote. “I am persuaded … that Dible would have been fired for his unprotected false statements, and that his discharge would not have been arbitrary, capricious or contrary to law.”