The U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to free association without government interference. Courts have used that right, for example, to strike down laws that prevent members of different ethnic groups from marrying.
However, the right has limits. States can set minimum-age requirements for marriage, among other things.
But what about the right of public-sector employees to free association? Can a public employer punish an employee for having a romantic relationship with a subordinate?
In this case, the court said concern over sexual harassment and maintaining a harmonious workplace outweigh any potential constitutional right to free association with a subordinate.
Recent case: Randolph Starling was a rescue captain for a Florida county fire department. He apparently arranged for another county employee to be transferred to his command—an employee with whom he wished to have a relationship. Once she became his subordinate, they began a romance. Starling was married at the time, but soon filed for divorce.
Eventually, the two married. But Starling’s boss took note of what he considered an inappropriate, adulterous relationship prior to their marriage. He demoted Starling.
Starling sued. In court, the county argued that its employees didn’t have the right to adulterous relationships with subordinates. It said allowing such conduct affected morale and increased the potential for a sexual harassment lawsuit.
The court agreed, saying the county’s legitimate workplace concerns outweighed Starling’s right of free and intimate association. (Starling v. Palm Beach County, et al., No. 09-11168, 11th Cir., 2010)