First Federal Appeals Court Plain View Project Case

The Plain View Project (PVP) was started in 2016 by a group of Philadelphia attorneys who believed that what they identified as racist and religiously biased social media posts by law enforcement officers “could erode civilian trust and confidence in police.” The PVP “hoped that police departments will investigate and address them immediately.” In 2019, when the PVP posted the database of social media posts it had created covering…

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Has The Supreme Court Slightly Opened The Free Speech Door?

It is hard to overstate the impact on public safety employee free speech rights produced by the 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos. In Garcetti, a deeply-divided Supreme Court overturned more than 40 years of public employee free speech law. The decision held that if speech is “ordinarily within the job duties” of the public employee, it has no constitutional protection under the First Amendment. Garcetti has led to…

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Confederate Flag Costs Sergeant Her Job

Sergeant Silvia Cotriss worked for the City of Roswell, Georgia. The City began investigating Cotriss when it received a complaint that she was flying a Confederate battle flag in her front yard, sometimes with her police cruiser present. During the investigation, Cotriss admitted that there had been two Confederate-like flags separately displayed on a flagpole underneath an American flag at her home since 2015, sometimes when her police cruiser…

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Officers’ Speech To City Council Not Constitutionally Protected

One might think that speech to a city council is clearly protected by the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment. As two high-ranking police officers with the City of Jellico, Tennessee discovered, the Supreme Court’s constricted view in Garcetti v. Ceballos of free speech rights of public employees means that even speech to a city council can be the basis for termination. The dispute started when Dwight Osborn…

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Federal Court Halts Firefighter Shift Change On Free Speech Grounds

On December 4, 2019, East Chicago Fire Chief Anthony Serna (who has since retired), acting at the direction of Mayor Anthony Cope­land, issued a memorandum to his firefighters that a new schedule would be instituted. The old schedule was the standard 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule employed by most fire departments in the country. As a federal trial court put it, “Chief Serna did not give the…

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No Obligation Arbitrate Free Speech Claims

George Forbush is an officer with the Sparks Police Department in Nevada and is a member of the Sparks Police Protective Association. The Association’s contract with the City contains a disci­plinary clause providing: “No post-pro­bationary employee will be disciplined or discharged without just cause.” In 2020, Forbush posted a variety of comments from his personal Twitter account. In response to a video depicting several individuals attempting to light an…

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When Unprotected ‘Employee Speech’ Becomes Protected ‘Citizen Speech’

Scott Specht works as a fire marshal for the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), where his primary responsibilities involved investigating the origins of fires. In that capacity, Specht investigated a fire in March 2018 that destroyed a five-story brownstone in Manhattan where a motion picture was being filmed. The fire resulted in serious damage to the building and the death of a firefighter. Over the course of his…

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Probation Officer Loses Free Speech Claim By Not Showing ‘But For’

Randall Knight was a probation officer for Nassau County, New York. Knight was terminated by the County in 2015 for his conduct during two incidents. The first incident involved Knight responding combatively and uncooperatively when Judy Arroyo, a City of Long Beach police officer, pulled him over for running a red light. The second incident involved Knight confronting Martha Del Valle, his partner probation officer, in an intimidating manner…

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Memo About Moldy Police Station Not Constitutionally Protected

Gerald Olbek was the deputy chief of the Wildwood Police Department in Florida. After a series of events that included a fire at the Department’s station, Olbek became concerned that the station had a serious mold problem. Olbek wrote a memo detailing the mold issues. The memo cited the fact that numerous employees had com­plained of health conditions related to mold and that the City had tried to remedy…

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Constitution Protects Against ‘Compelled Speech’

Michael Gala is a Deputy Assistant Chief with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). On May 18, 2020, Gala met with Chief of Department John Sudnik and Chief of Fire Operations Thomas Richardson and was informed that he would be promoted to Assistant Chief of Department on May 23. However, Chief Sudnik explained that the Fire Commissioner wanted Gala to send an email, recanting opinions that he had…

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SWAT Sniper Entitled To Jury Trial In Facebook Case

You know a court’s opinion will be anything but run-of-the-mill when it begins: “Social media has allowed Americans to connect with friends in far-flung places and to share their opinions on topics both mundane and momentous. But social media can also tempt people to impulsively make inflammatory comments that they later regret. And even worse for them, employers often react by firing or punishing them for their ill-advised remarks….

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Houston District Fire Chief Loses Social Media Case

Steven Dunbar, a District Chief for the Houston Fire Department (HFD), made a post in a private social media group for HFD firefighters in July 2019. Discussing a transfer opportunity HFD had posted the month before, he wrote: “If you are thinking about putting in for a spot in District 64 on C-shift you better have your sh** together. Wanna play games like previously-assigned members? You will be miserable…promise.”…

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Federal Court Upholds Facebook Discipline

Ariel Lindsay has been a Cook County, Illinois deputy sheriff since2004, and was assigned to the Court Services Unit in the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. From July 6, 2016, through July 8, 2016, Lindsay made several posts to her Facebook account. Those posts referenced the July 2016 shooting of police officers in Dallas, Texas, and the public sentiment towards law enforcement officers. When she made her posts, Lindsay…

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EMS Captain’s Facebook Post May Be Constitutionally Protected

Jamie Marquardt was a captain with City of Cleveland’s Department of Emergency Medical Services. Marquardt had a “private” Facebook page which did not identify him as a City employee. A little more than a year after a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a post appeared on Marquardt’s Facebook page: “Let me be the first on record to have the balls to say Tamir Rice should…

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Firefighter’s ‘Clueless Idiots’ Comment Not Protected By First Amendment

Larry Moreau, Jr., was a captain with the St. Landry Fire Protection District No. 3 in Louisiana. In May 2017, Moreau was accused of refusing to participate in a fire training exercise. At a pre-disciplinary hearing before the District’s Board, Moreau explained that he did not participate because of an on-the-job injury that he failed to report. The Board voted to issue Moreau a formal letter of reprimand, but…

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The First Amendment v. Whistleblower Laws

In Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), the United States Supreme Court ruled that speech made as part of a public employee’s job has no First Amendment protection. However, the First Amendment is only one source of protection against improper discipline for engaging in speech. Protection against unfair discipline for speech can be found in the “just cause” provisions of collective bargaining agreements, in civil service laws, and…

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Officer’s Firing For Facebook Posts Upheld

Anthony Venable, who had been an officer with the Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County Police Department (MNPD) since 2007, engaged in a Facebook conversation regarding the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota. At the time, Venable was off-duty and the shooting had happened just the day before. During the course of the conversation, Venable posted a number of comments, including: “Yeah, I would have done 5,” in response to…

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Chief Wins $4.1 Million In Free Speech Lawsuit

Doug Greisen was the chief of police for the City of Scappoose, Oregon. In 2012, after more than ten years in that position, he became suspicious about the city’s accounting and budgeting practices. He worried Jon Hanken, the city manager, was hiding something. Greisen believed Hanken was suspiciously defensive about the budget, improperly delayed paying invoices at the end of the fiscal year and had weakened the city’s external…

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Firing Of Former Sheriff’s Wife Does Not Violate The First Amendment

Tamela Muir, Bert Muir, and Ben Boswell worked for the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) in Iowa. Tamela began working for the DCSO in November 1996 as a jailer and dispatcher. Her employment was at-will. Bert started working for the DCSO on March 19, 1998, when he was elected Sheriff. He hired Boswell as a Deputy Sheriff in September 2001. Tamela and Bert were married in January 2008, and…

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Barring Criticism Of City Is Unlawful ‘Prior Restraint’ Of Speech

Thelma Barone was a Community Service Officer II with the Springfield Police Department in Oregon. Barone focused on victim advocacy and served as a Department liaison to the City’s minority communities. Throughout her tenure, members of the Latino community complained to Barone about alleged racial profiling by the Department. She relayed these complaints to Department leadership. These complaints became more frequent beginning in the spring of 2013. Around that…

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Refusal To Change Report Not Protected Speech

Lorenzo Davis was a supervisor for Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority. The Authority investigated certain types of complaints against Chicago police, including domestic violence, excessive force, and death in police custody. After investigating such allegations, the Authority made a disciplinary recommendation to the Chicago Police in the form of a report. The report summarized the investigation and included findings on the alleged misconduct: namely, whether the allegations were “sustained,”…

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Internal Grievances Not Protected By The First Amendment

Booth James had worked for the Montgomery, Alabama Regional Airport Authority for approximately 15 years as a Third Shift Police Supervisor when he observed misconduct concerning the evidence impound of the Transportation Security Administration. After discussing these concerns with his supervisors and others, James sent a grievance letter to the Airport’s Board of Directors, detailing issues about public safety and falsified misconduct within the Airport Police Department. When the…

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Testimony In Court Not Always Constitutionally Protected

With the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Lane v. Franks, some believed that a firm rule had been established that the off-duty testimony in court by a public employee was absolutely constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, and could not be the basis for discipline. A recent decision from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals shows that the lower courts are not giving such an expansive reading to…

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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…

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‘Quintessential Employee Beef’ Not Protected By First Amendment

Scottie Bagi and Gary Vojtush are firefighters and medics for the City of Parma, Ohio. The Department maintains a Tactical Emergency Medical Specialist (TEMS) unit consisting of specially trained firefighter medics who provide emergency medical support to the city police department’s SWAT team in high-risk situations. In the event of an injury, TEMS unit members treat the police first, then innocent bystanders, then criminals. In 2011, Bagi drafted a…

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