In June of 2015, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) issued changes to its uniform policy. Under the new policy, on-duty CPD officers are required to cover tattoos on the hands, face, neck, and other areas not covered by clothing, with skin tone adhesive bandages or tattoo covers.
Soon after the policy went into effect, three CPD officers sued the City of Chicago in federal court arguing that the City failed to bargain with the Police Union before changing the dress code and the City failed to consider alternatives to the ban. Each of the plaintiffs have tattoos, including tattoos relating to military service and religious beliefs.
Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged the City violated 42 USC § 1983 by infringing on their First Amendment rights. The City filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by Judge Charles Kocoras on October 27, 2015.
The case, Medici v. City of Chicago No. 15 C 5891 (N.D. IL. Oct. 27, 2015), offers protections for government entities considering changes to appearance policies. It also can be used by non-government employers who have chosen to adopt policies affecting an employee’s appearance in the workplace against claims of First Amendment violations.
In determining the motion to dismiss, the court weighed application of a balancing test from Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205, Will County, 391 U.S. 563 (1968): “specifically that a restraint on government employee speech must ‘arrive at a balance between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest[s] of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.’”
The court held that the City’s tattoo policy does not violate the Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights because the Pickering test did not apply to personal expression. Significantly, the court held that the “tattoos are a form of personal expression, and not a form of speech on matters of public concern.” Therefore, the court was not required to determine if the policy would pass the Pickering test.
However, the court noted that even if the Pickering test is applied “the City’s interest in maintaining a professional and uniform police force substantially outweighs Plaintiffs’ interests in personal expression through the display of their tattoos while on-duty.” Therefore, the new uniform policy passes First Amendment muster.
Full case opinion