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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fire Chief’s Message to Staff About Possible Layoffs Not Protected Speech

By now, we know that the speech of a public employee about their employer is not protected if the content of the statements were related to their duties or if it reflects personal opinion resulting in disruption to the operations of the employer. Enter the Fire Chief in Lincoln Heights, Ohio.

Evidently, Lincoln Heights, Ohio is a hotbed of litigation, so much so that the liability insurance risk pool to which it belonged notified it that it was terminating the Village’s membership in the pool because of the excessive number of claims against it. Fire Chief Jonah Holbrook  received a copy of this letter from Village Manager Stephanie Dumas with a warning from her that the Village might have to eliminate its Fire Department. Holbrook quickly passed a copy of that letter along to the members of the Fire Department, stating that they might lose their jobs and they should attend the upcoming Village Board meeting.  The issue was discussed at the Village Board meeting a few days after Holbrook’s message and Manager Dumas reported on the issue in open session. He also posted the following on his Facebook page a couple of days later:
To all of the current/past employees who support the fire department. As some of you may know, the fire department, police department and maintenance department are in jeopardy. Due to insurance related issues that were made public at last Monday's (7/28) council meeting. Council has the meetings recorded by video and there is online access, but I do not know the site. As of now, there is a chance the departments will face even more severe issues, as of October 2nd, 2014 if they cannot find another insurance company.  
Holbrook filed his First Amendment claim, alleging that he was discharged because he engaged in protected speech. The court, however, ruled against him, finding that his statements were not made as part of his job and any concern for the community that might lose its fire department. Instead, the court determined that his statements were based on a personal concern for members of his staff and others.  As a result, the statements were not protected speech by the First Amendment.

The lesson public employees should take from this case is that their First Amendment protections are not unlimited, and even statements about their job that appear to be "matters of public concern" will not always be protected, particularly if the statements are more in the nature of a personal concern.

Read the entire post here.

Post originally authored by Margaret Kostopulos, Ancel Glink


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