A federal judge, ruling in a lawsuit brought by five D.C. firefighters who faced discipline for criticizing the department, has upheld the men and declared fire department regulations an unconstitutional violation of the firefighters' rights to free speech.

Proceedings began against three of the firefighters for displaying a bumper sticker critical of the department. The two others gave unauthorized interviews to reporters. One criticized the protective gloves provided for treating trauma victims; the other, the cadet program.

Lee Levine, the lawyer who represented the firefighters, called Friday's decision a "clear signal . . . that D.C. government employees don't sacrifice their First Amendment rights to go to work for the D.C. government."

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge June L. Green said the department's interest in protecting morale and discipline had to be weighed against the right to free expression.

She said the 1987 bumper sticker -- "D.C. Fire Department . . . It's Not Just A Job, It's A Joke, Too!" -- did not appear to be a significant contribution to public debate. But, she said, at the time of display, the department was embroiled in controversy, and thus the stickers "must be seen as expression which touches upon a matter of public concern."

In unauthorized interviews, Green said, the right to free speech should prevail in the absence of evidence of harm to the city's interest in maintaining discipline.

She said free speech may not be subjected to advance permission from government without guidelines. The department policy allows officials to deny permission for interviews without giving a reason, and is therefore unconstitutional, she said. Capt. Theodore Holmes, fire department spokesman, said officials had not yet seen the ruling, and might appeal.