Fire Department’s Email Policy Violates First Amendment

Jonathan Sprague served as a firefighter, and eventually as a captain, for the Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) in Washington. During his employment, Sprague and other SVFD employees formed the Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship. Sprague created a list of work email addresses for 46 firefighters that he believed were interested in the Fellowship’s activities. Sprague began using SVFD’s email system to send emails about the Fellowship’s activities.

SVFD’s email policy stated that the email system was to be used for SVFD business only and “should not be used for personal business.” SVFD acknowledged that some personal use of the email system was acceptable, so long as it was “linked” to SVFD business. For example, SVFD would allow an employee to use the email system to arrange for a dog sitter if the employee had to stay late or cover a shift. In addition, the SVFD’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) sent newsletters to employees through SVFD’s email system. Newsletters discussed suicide, “caregiver depression,” how to “change your mood,” eating disorders, compulsive gambling, binge drinking, and team building.

Sprague posted information about the Fellowship’s meetings and newsletters on SVFD’s electronic bulletin board and through the email system. Some of Sprague’s messages were general in nature; others were explicitly religious, and included quotes from the Bible.

These emails and postings generated controversy among Sprague’s supervisors. They took progressive discipline against Sprague in an effort to halt his communications about the Fellowship on SVFD’s email and bulletin board systems. A member of the Spokane Valley Board of Fire Commissioners sent a letter to Sprague, requesting that he stop using SVFD’s email system and use his personal email address instead.

Sprague did not use his personal email and continued to send emails over SVFD’s email system. In turn, his supervisors continued their efforts to halt his communications. The SVFD believed that the problem with Sprague’s emails was that they were not “content neutral.” One District representative testified that although the “subject language” of Sprague’s emails was the same as the EAP newsletters, they offered tips “from his interpretation of what Sprague had read in the Bible.” This was an issue because SVFD “wanted to keep everything content neutral to separate church from state because it is a state organization.” She told Sprague that the “content of the who, where, what, why and when is okay, but to please remove the scripture.”

Despite his supervisors’ continued warnings, Sprague continued to post on the bulletin board and send emails about the Fellowship over SVFD’s email system. Eventually, Sprague was terminated from SVFD. He sued, claiming his free speech rights had been violated.

The Washington Supreme Court sided with Sprague. The Court found that “the heart of this case is whether SVFD attempted in a viewpoint neutral manner to restrict Sprague’s speech. Here, it is clear from the record that Sprague’s ordinary duties as an SVFD captain did not include sending emails about the Fellowship. Sprague testified that his objective in speaking was fellowship between ‘people of like-minded faith, just to be an encouragement to everybody.’ Sprague did not confine his communications to the chain of command; instead he spoke in direct contravention of his supervisors’ orders.

“Some of Sprague’s communications touch on matters of public concern. The emails he sent that discuss the mental health and well-being of firefighters, such as issues of suicide and stress relief, relate to public safety and are matters of public concern. Sprague’s former boss had recently committed suicide, and SVFD paid for Sprague to take suicide prevention courses. Given this context, it is fair to conclude that the mental health of SVFD firefighters, responsible for protecting the public safety of Spokane County, was likely a matter of particular and current concern to the community at the time of Sprague’s emails.

“However, some of Sprague’s communications clearly fall outside the scope of public concern. The communications that he sent discussing the Fellowship’s social activities and logo design are not matters of public concern. They in no way relate to public safety, the efficiency of government operations, or any other topic of public concern. Consequently, any of Sprague’s communications that touched on these topics do not merit protection under the First Amendment, and SVFD was justified in restricting Sprague’s speech in those contexts.

“Here, Policy 171 – restricting personal use of SVFD’s email system – was viewpoint neutral. However, there is evidence that SVFD did not apply Policy 171 to Sprague in a viewpoint neutral manner. SVFD opened its email system for discussion of the topics in the EAP newsletters. SVFD forwarded the emails over the system and concedes that employee discussion of those topics would be permissible. Many of Sprague’s emails touched on the same topics as the EAP newsletters forwarded by SVFD. Therefore, SVFD could not allow discussion of those topics from some viewpoints while excluding Sprague’s viewpoint.

“Sprague presented evidence that SVFD permitted other firefighters to use the email system for business not related to official SVFD business. For example, emails sent over the system discussed fundraisers, social events, and selling tickets to sports events. Yet, the only time that SVFD sought to enforce Policy 171 was to preclude Sprague from sending emails about the Fellowship.

“While Policy 171 is reasonable, SVFD applied it to Sprague in a manner that was not viewpoint neutral. SVFD permitted some viewpoints, but prohibited Sprague’s viewpoint. Here, SVFD’s interest in avoiding an establishment clause violation does not outweigh Sprague’s interests under the First Amendment. Permitting equal access to a forum does not endorse religion. Nor did SVFD’s other interests as an employer outweigh Sprague’s interest in speaking here.

“There still remain genuine issues of material fact as to whether the termination of Sprague’s employment was justified and if not, what damages Sprague suffered. Therefore, we reverse and remand to the Superior Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Department, 2018 WL 547363 (Wash. 2018).