CLEVELAND, Ohio — A federal judge ruled that the city of Cleveland did not violate a police officer’s civil rights when officials disciplined him for using a term that many feel is derogatory toward Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent.
U.S. District Judge James Gwin wrote in an order Wednesday that the city did not violate patrolman Aaron Petitt’s free-speech rights when disciplining him for a word he used in a text to a fellow officer. The judge dismissed the lawsuit.
Petitt, who works in the Third District, was suspended for six days without pay in May 2018 and ordered to attend sensitivity training after Internal Affairs found a text he sent while IA was in the midst of a separate investigation.
An officer on April 27, 2017 texted Petitt that “Middle Eastern types” were causing problems at the Hustler Club strip club in the Flats and asked Petitt to come down there while he was on-duty, city records show.
Petitt replied by saying it was “never a bother to tune up some (explicit word) haha.” Cleveland.com has decided not to publish the word, but the disciplinary charge lodged against Petitt was that he used “disparaging remarks when referencing an Arabic male during a potential police action.”
The six-day suspension was also for other infractions that IA said Petitt committed. Petitt and the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association sued in July and said the city violated the officer’s First Amendment and due process rights. The lawsuit argued that the meaning of the term was ambiguous.
Gwin, in ruling in the city’s favor, wrote that while the Constitution prohibits the punishing of citizens for protected speech, Petitt made the comment while working as a public employee. The judge also wrote that the word does not relate to a “matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.”
The judge also said Petitt’s interest in using the word does not outweigh the interest of the government to prohibit its officers from using offensive language. In fact, Petitt’s interest “barely registers as an interest at all,” Gwin wrote.
Gwin also dismissed arguments that the discipline was unconstitutional and that Petitt’s due process rights were violated. While he noted that a six-day suspension over the use of “an only-arguably insulting ethnic reference” in a private text message seemed like an overreaction, that doesn’t mean it’s a civil rights violation.
“Public employers make suspect employee decisions without necessarily running afoul of the Constitution,” Gwin wrote, adding that Petitt’s suspension was also for other infractions.
He also noted that the officer’s use of the phrase “tune up” seemed like a reference to using force on someone, and that it seemed more offensive than the word ultimately at issue.
Petitt’s lawsuit said the officer was more harshly disciplined than another officer who was investigated for using the “n-word.” That officer, John Kraynik, used the term in text messages while off-duty in reference to Ohio State University football players, IA said. He was sent to diversity training.
Jared Klebanow, an attorney representing Petitt and the CPPA, said his clients were satisfied with the court’s decision, even if that was mixed with some disappointment. He said they knew the case would be a challenge, and were gratified that Gwin acknowledged he thought some of the city’s actions were overblown.
City Law Director Barbara Langhenry said in a statement Thursday that “the City of Cleveland is pleased the Court concluded the City did not violate any of P.O. Aaron Petitt’s constitutional rights when it suspended him in 2018.”