McGrath: Political Speech Permitted for Public Officers, Employees
HELENA – In an opinion released Monday, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath held that as long as public resources are not involved, a public officer or public employee may engage in political speech.
Jefferson County Attorney Mathew Johnson requested the opinion, asking how a public officer or employee balances state law with the right to express a political opinion. Montana law specifically prohibits the use of “public time, equipment, supplies, personnel or funds” in relation to supporting or opposing a candidate or ballot measure.
McGrath wrote that free speech rights are protected, and only the specific restrictions listed can be invoked to limit those rights.
The opinion also held that state law does not prohibit a public employee or officer from signing a letter to the editor with his or her official title, or, in the case of law enforcement official, campaigning while in uniform.
“A title or a uniform is simply an accouterment of a public employee’s or officer’s position,” the opinion said. “A sheriff is not required to shed all associations … with his political position in order to exercise his protected right to express personal political beliefs.”
Attorney General’s opinions carry the weight of law unless a court overturns them or the legislature modifies the laws involved.