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The order declared that department employees could not give interviews while on duty without prior written permission from a public affairs officer. In a 1990 lawsuit brought by the firefighters union, the U.S. District Court for the District “found that regulation to be an unconstitutional prior restraint on firefighters’ freedom of speech and prohibited the Department ‘from enforcing [the] regulation in the future,’ ” Mr. Spitzer wrote.

A similar rule was reintroduced into the department’s orders in 2005.

Lt. Alvarado said the handling of his case, and backing by the ACLU, proves that firefighters’ concerns about retaliation within the department are real.

“It shows we’re not crying wolf. This is a very legitimate problem within the department. And Ellerbe is just doing whatever he wants without regard to whether it’s legal and whether it’s right,” he said. “The longer this goes on, the longer the citizens of the District of Columbia are at risk for picking up charges for litigation over this.”