For the second time, a Maryland court has seen through the flimsy argument of two Howard County sheriff's deputies -- formerly the second-and third-ranking officers in their department -- who claimed their First Amendment rights were denied when they were fired for repeatedly making Nazi gestures on the job.

Two years ago in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, Howard County Sheriff Michael Chiuchiolo was found not to have overstepped his bounds in dismissing twin brothers Donald and Dennis Pruitt for their witless Hitler bit. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the lower court's decision last week, backing Sheriff Chiuchiolo's action and reiterating that the Pruitts' free speech rights had not been violated.

Before the court hearings, an administrative review board had recommended that the brothers be demoted, fined $200 and forced to get counseling.

But Sheriff Chiuchiolo decided to discharge the two men outright, explaining that their continued presence on the staff would hurt morale and hinder his efforts to make the department more professional.

E5 The Pruitts have charged that the sheriff got rid of them to create openings for his cronies. If so, the brothers gave him ample justification to make the move. Two courts have now agreed on that.

As Court of Special Appeals Associate Judge Theodore G. Bloom noted in his opinion, the remarks and general conduct of the Pruitt brothers failed to meet the criteria established in a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision relating to legal protections for public employees fired for making certain kinds of comments.

Those criteria require that the comments pertain to a serious matter of public interest. That's where the Pruitts did themselves in.

They have insisted all along that their heel-clicking and shouts of "Sieg heil!" were merely imitations of the oafish but likable Nazis (there's an oxymoron for you) on the old "Hogan's Heroes" TV series. Hardly the stuff of sober public discourse.

Yet, as local Jewish groups have pointed out, there was nothing amusing about the behavior of the Pruitts. It showed a misunderstanding of the evil of Nazism that's as sad as it is

infuriating. That it was displayed by senior law enforcement officials in uniform is all the more distressing.

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