Appeal from the Circuit Court for Baltimore County; Hormes, J.
Gilbert, C. J., and Morton and*fn* Mason, JJ. Mason, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.
A disciplinary Hearing Board of the Baltimore County Police Department found Officer Charles W. Beeler guilty of violating the following rules and regulations of the Baltimore County Police Department:
Any breach of the peace, neglect of duty, misconduct or any conduct on the part of any members of
the Department, either within or without Baltimore County, which tends to undermine the good order, efficiency, or discipline of the Department, or which reflects discredit upon the Department or any member thereof, or which is prejudicial to the efficiency and discipline of the Department, even though these offenses may not be specifically enumerated or laid down, shall be considered conduct unbecoming a member of the Police Department of Baltimore County, and subject to disciplinary action by the Police Chief.
Section 11. No member of the Department shall publicly criticize or ridicule the official action of any member of the Department, public official or judge."
The Hearing Board recommended the following penalty:
(1) Loss of two (2) days leave;
(2) Work ten (10) hours of extra duty without pay;
The Baltimore County Police Chief concurred in the findings and recommendations of the Board, and the Circuit Court for Baltimore County affirmed the decision of the Baltimore County Police Department. On appeal, appellant argues, in essence, that the rules and regulations for which he was found guilty of violating are unconstitutionally vague and over-broad, and that the rules, as applied to him, unconstitutionally restricted his First Amendment right of free speech.
The charges against Beeler stem from the following facts: At approximately 1 A.M. on 9 April 1978, the Baltimore County Police responded to a report of overcrowded conditions at Mimi Jr.'s, a local county nightclub. Upon their arrival, the police proceeded to close down the club. As the crowd was leaving the premises, Beeler, who was off duty, approached Sergeant Vernon Becker in a hostile and aggressive manner, and in a loud voice criticized the department
for harassing the owner of the club. According to Sergeant Becker, Beeler said, "I know that Mimi takes care of the Parkville Police and we should not hassle him." Beeler also stated, "I am going to ISD [the Internal Affairs Section which investigates police conduct] and complain about this harassment that your guys are putting on Mimi, there's no problem here, this is more of Lowe's [Lt. Lowe] bullshit, everytime he works this place gets hassled." Sergeant Webster testified that Beeler "advised me that the police should leave Mimi alone because he takes care of all of the Parkville Police. I asked him what he meant and he said, you know what I meant." In addition to the presence of other police officers, there were several citizens in the vicinity when Beeler made his remarks. Some of the officers were angered and embarrassed by Beeler's remarks.
One month later when Beeler was questioned by Officer Hamel of Internal Affairs about this incident, he presented no evidence to support his remarks that "Mimi takes care of the Parkville Police," and that Mimi's was singled out by the police for harassment, nor did he file a complaint with respect to this matter.
First, we will address Beeler's contention that the rules and regulations of the Baltimore County Police Department, as applied to him, impermissibly restricted his constitutional right of free speech. The seminal case protecting the First Amendment rights of public employees is Pickering v. Board of Education, 396 U.S. 563 (1968). In that case, the Supreme Court invalidated the dismissal of a public school teacher who had written a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the way the Board of Education and the superintendent had handled past proposals to raise new revenue and the manner in which funds were allocated between educational and athletic programs.
After recognizing that the State has an interest as an employer in regulating the speech of its employees, the Court observed: "The problem in any case is to arrive at a balance between the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interests
of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees." Because of the numerous and varied fact situations in which public employees make critical statements of their employers, the Court did not attempt to lay down a standard against which all statements by public employees may be judged. Instead, it set forth some general guidelines ...