Michael Snipes worked as a law enforcement captain with the Beach Safety and Ocean Rescue Department of Volusia County, Florida. Shortly before the events culminating in Snipe’s termination occurred, the Beach Patrol was involved in a public scandal involving adult employees and underage females which significantly, and negatively, affected its reputation in the community. Although Snipes was not involved in that scandal, he was aware of its impact on the Beach Patrol, which included the implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy for any actions that would further tarnish the Beach Patrol’s reputation.
Shortly afterwards, the highly publicized trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin occurred. Both the shooting and the trial occurred in neighboring Seminole County and, after a jury acquitted Zimmerman, there were rallies to protest the verdict in Volusia County.
The day after the Zimmerman verdict was announced, Snipes – in a comment he conceded was in reference to Martin – posted the following on his Facebook page: “Another thug gone! Pull up your pants and act respectful. Bye bye thug rip!” On the same day, Snipes initiated a nine-person group text message, to which he sent a picture of Paula Deen with the caption “Y’all niggas want some pie?”
One of the members of that group text responded with a picture of Martin and the caption “Those skittles were to die for,” to which Snipes responded “Lol.” Similarly, Snipes responded “LOL nice!” to a picture of the Zimmerman jury with Paula Deen’s head superimposed on their bodies. Finally, he ended the text thread by sending a picture of Martin and Zimmerman in which Zimmerman was depicted as an African-American and Martin was depicted as a Caucasian.
Snipes was not on duty when he made the Facebook post, but he was on duty when he sent each of his text messages. Three of the recipients of the text messages were current employees of the County, one of whom was Snipes’ direct subordinate and another of whom was on duty when he received the messages. Another of the recipients of Snipes’ text messages was a recent retiree from the Beach Patrol who reported them to Snipes’ supervisor and subsequently provided copies of both the messages and the Facebook post to an internal affairs investigator. Additionally, an unidentified individual provided copies of the text messages and Facebook post to a local newspaper, which ran an article publishing their content.
When the County terminated Snipes, he filed a free speech lawsuit, contending his post and messages were protected by the First Amendment. The Federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit and upheld the termination.
Snipes’ key argument was that the County did not receive any complaints or demands that he be fired and that no rallies or protests against his activities were held. The Court found that Snipes’ argument missed the mark: “Whether or not this is true, the County needed to demonstrate only a reasonable possibility that such disruptions would occur. As the County Manager suggested, ‘the fact that the process moved forward and there was a resolution to this issue, which was investigated, action was taken, Mr. Snipes was let go, I believe that that action allowed us to move on without having disruption.’ This view is supported by the President of the Volusia County NAACP, Cynthia Slater, who stated that ‘the County’s swift action in investigating and dismissing Captain Snipes was proper and timely and avoided any further reaction from our branch.’ Likewise, the President of the Daytona Beach Black Clergy Alliance, Reverend Durham, testified that, if Snipes had not been fired, ‘I certainly think that we would have probably moved forward with some sort of either demonstration or action.’
“Nor are rallies or protests the only disruptions with which the County and the Beach Patrol needed to be concerned. As just one other example, Reverend Durham testified that, with regard to the Beach Patrol’s ongoing efforts to recruit members of the African-American community, ‘I think there would have been some real concerns on their part about applying for positions with the Beach Patrol after something like this had come to light.” Thus, the Beach Patrol’s ability to fully staff a police force that is representative of the community may have been negatively affected.
“Moreover, we have held that maintaining the public’s confidence in local fire and rescue services is a compelling and legitimate government interest. As the NAACP’s Slater suggested, Snipes’ texts and Facebook messages ‘make you wonder if a black person is out in the ocean drowning, if Beach Patrol officers would turn their head or if they would take their time to help rescue them.’ This is precisely the type of public confidence which we have traditionally viewed as a compelling government interest.”
Snipes v. Volusia County, 2017 WL 3588273 (11th Cir. 2017).