Sergeant Loses Job Over Facebook ‘Rant’

Susan Graziosi was a sergeant for the Greenville, Mississippi Police Department with over 25 years of service. In 2012, several officers expressed to the Police Chief a desire to attend the funeral of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty in Pearl, Mississippi. Despite the City Council’s decision to disallow the use of patrol cars for personal use under the “take-home” program due to budget concerns, the Chief discussed sending one patrol car to the funeral. However, after learning that one patrol car would not accommodate all of the officers who wanted to attend the funeral, the Chief decided that the officers would have to use their personal vehicles if they planned to attend.

After learning that no member of the Department attended the funeral, Graziosi used her home computer while off duty to post the following statement to her Facebook page: “This is totally unacceptable. I don’t want to hear about the price of gas – officers would have gladly paid for and driven their own vehicles had we known the City was in such dire straights [sic] as to not to be able to afford a trip to Pearl, MS, which, by the way, is where our police academy is located. The last I heard was the Chief was telling the assistant chief about getting a group of officers to go to the funeral. Dear Mayor, can we please get a leader that understands that a department sends officers to the funeral of an officer killed in the line of duty?”

Several of Graziosi’s Facebook “friends” liked or indicated approval of her post and left comments. Graziosi posted responses to several comments. For instance, in response to a comment lamenting the perceived decline of the Department by a former officer, Graziosi posted: “We had something then that we no longer have…LEADERS. I don’t know that trying for 28 is worth it. In fact, I am amazed every time I walk into the door.” Graziosi stated that “you’ll be happy to know that I will no longer use restraint when voicing my opinion on things. Ha!”

Later that night, Graziosi posted her initial statement to the mayor’s public Facebook page. Fifteen minutes later, Graziosi made an additional post in which she stated, “If you don’t want to lead, can you just get the hell out of the way.” Within a minute, she posted again stating, “Seriously, if you don’t want to lead, just go.”

The City fired Gaziosi for the posts. Graziosi sued, alleging that her Facebook posts were protected by the First Amendment. The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected her lawsuit.

The Court found that “for an employee’s speech to be entitled to First Amendment protection, she must be speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern. Speech involves a matter of public concern if it can be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.

“The content of Graziosi’s speech weighs against finding that she spoke on a matter of public concern. It is well established that speech exposing or otherwise addressing malfeasance, corruption or breach of the public trust, especially within a police department, touches upon matters of public concern. However, exposing malfeasance within the Department was not the nature of Graziosi’s speech. To the contrary, Graziosi’s statements conveyed no information at all other than the fact that a single employee was upset with the status quo. Indeed, her statements did not reveal that the Chief was not faithfully discharging his duties nor that the City leaders were mismanaging funds, thus causing the budgetary issues that she contends were the focal point of her posts.

“While we recognize that her posts started by addressing subjects that can be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community, her posts quickly devolved into a rant attacking the Chief’s leadership and culminating with the demand that he ‘get the hell out of the way.’ Therefore, the speech at issue here is akin to an internal grievance, the content of which is not entitled to First Amendment protection.”

Graziosi v. City of Greenville, Mississippi, 775 F.3d 731 (5th Cir. 2015).