On appeal from a Final Decision of the Department of Law and Public Safety, Division of State Police.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Fuentes and Baxter.
Defendant Robert Sobolusky is a Sergeant in the New Jersey State Police. He was suspended by the State Police for wearing a shirt with the words "Lords of Discipline" written on the front to a national police picnic. According to media reports and internal studies conducted by the Office of the State Attorney General, the "Lords of Discipline" was an informal group of State troopers accused of allegedly harassing and hazing new troopers that refused to conform to the group's standards. The group had gained national attention, and was the subject of several lawsuits against the State Police, although it had never been proven that the group actually existed.
After a plenary hearing in the Office of Administrative Law, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) recommended that defendant be suspended for thirty days for wearing the shirt. The ALJ found that, in wearing the shirt at the particular function, defendant violated multiple rules and regulations regarding the conduct of troopers. The Superintendent of the State Police accepted the ALJ's findings and recommendation, and imposed the suspension.
Defendant now appeals, arguing that (1) the State Police violated his First Amendment right to free speech; and (2) he was not given sufficient notice that wearing a shirt that said "Lords of Discipline" to a police picnic would lead to disciplinary action. We reject these arguments and affirm. The salient facts necessary to address the legal issues raised here are undisputed.
On September 25, 2003, Sobolusky attended the National Trooper's Coalition Picnic at Lums Pond in Newark, Delaware. Major Lanuel Ferguson of the New Jersey State Police described the picnic:
The National Trooper's Coalition Picnic is a picnic that is open to troopers both active and retired from the 50 states that converge on one particular day or two particular days at an event under the auspices of the National Trooper's Coalition which everyone -- each one of the 50 states -- I'm not sure if 50 states send all members but it's -- I realize that it's a national organization, you know, where all the troopers from the states have input and they meet regularly and this is their -- the summer picnic, their release where they get together, sell shirts, talk, tell war stories and things of that nature.
State Police Detective Sergeant Dennis Hallion, who serves as president of the State Troopers Non Commission Officers Association, which comprises approximately 930 sergeants, gave a similar description of the purpose of the picnic.
[It is an event] to let your hair down for one day, one day out of 365 . . . . [I]t is limited to State Police, elicited State Police members only, no family member[s], . . . no kids are permitted to attend, and there are . . . various activities, there is a weight lifting contest, there is a --there is a run, you know, a race so to speak, a road race, there are various booths and tents set up where -- where all kinds of memorabilia, all kinds of items, articles are sold to benefit, you know, that particular state or the [National Troop Coalition] or whatever the group is, you know, putting out their [wares]; basically, again, it's a major networking of troopers from around the country that come in for one day and, you know, can pretty much relax and enjoy the day.
This particular picnic was attended by law enforcement officers from around the country, but was not open to anyone from the general public; not even the troopers' families. Admission to the event was carefully monitored, requiring attendees to show their badges before purchasing a ticket.
While at the picnic, defendant wore a shirt with the words "Lords of Discipline" written on the front. The shirt also listed all of the Troop A State Police stations. This was witnessed by both defendant's superiors ...