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By Hassan Kanu
Jan. 12 — The city of Greenville, Miss., justifiably terminated a police officer for posting statements criticizing the police chief on the mayor's public Facebook page because she caused disruption, and the city's interest in maintaining discipline and good working relationships in its police department outweighed her free speech interests, a federal appellate court held Jan. 9.
Writing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Judge Carl E. Stewart affirmed summary judgment to Greenville and Chief Freddie Cannon on Susan Graziosi's claim alleging a violation of her free speech rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court said although Graziosi's comments were made as a citizen, they didn't address a matter of public concern and, in any case, her interests in making her grievance public didn't outweigh the city's interest in maintaining discipline.
“Through her statements, Graziosi publicly criticized the decision of her superior officer and requested new leadership,” the court said. “These statements coupled with her vow of future and continued unrestrained conduct ‘smack of insubordination,' and Greenville was well within its wide degree of latitude to determine that dismissal was appropriate.”
The court said it reached the conclusion “in light of the wide latitude afforded police departments as paramilitary operations to discipline and otherwise regulate” employees. Judges Priscilla R. Owen and Fortunato P. Benavides joined the opinion.
Graziosi worked for the Greenville Police Department for more than 25 years, according to the opinion.
In early 2012, several officers told Cannon they wanted to attend the funeral of a police officer killed in the line of duty in neighboring Pearl, Miss.
The Greenville City Council had disallowed the department's “take-home” program, which allowed personal use of patrol cars, the court wrote. Cannon discussed sending one patrol car but later “decided that the officers would have to use their personal vehicles” when he learned how many wanted to attend.
None of the GPD officers attended the funeral, the court said.
Graziosi posted the statements at issue to her own Facebook page shortly thereafter, on May 7, 2012. She began by writing that she “just found out” the department wasn't represented at the funeral. “This is totally unacceptable,” she said, adding, “Dear Mayor, can we please get a leader that understands that a department sends officers [to] the funeral of an officer killed in the line of duty?”
Several of her Facebook friends liked and commented on her post, the court said. Graziosi responded to a comment by writing “we no longer have … LEADERS” and added that “you'll be happy to know that I will no longer use restraint when voicing my opinion on things,” according to the opinion.
She later posted the original statement to then-Mayor Chuck Jordan's public Facebook page, adding, “If you don't want to lead, can you just get the hell out of the way.”
The chief learned about Graziosi's comments and opened an internal investigation. She was terminated for insubordination and failing to support fellow employees.
The City Council and a federal judge subsequently affirmed the decision before Graziosi appealed.
The court said as a public employee, Graziosi's speech is protected only if she spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern and if her interest in that speech outweighs the city's interests in regulating it.
The court said she spoke as a citizen because “making these statements was not within the ordinary scope of Graziosi's duties as a police officer.”
It concluded that she didn't address a matter of public concern. Graziosi's “statements did not reveal that Chief Cannon was not faithfully discharging his duties” but instead addressed an internal employee-employer dispute, the court said. It added that although the post started by addressing subjects that may concern the community, it “quickly devolved into a rant attacking Chief Cannon's leadership.”
Graziosi's testimony that “anger and dissatisfaction” motivated the statements also weighs against finding that the speech was protected, the court said.
The court added that it wouldn't overturn the termination, even if her speech was protected, because the city alleged her statements actually disrupted its operations by causing a change in the demeanor of some officers toward Cannon.
Even if “Graziosi spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern, she nevertheless fails to demonstrate that her interests outweigh those of Greenville,” the court said.
Pigott, Reeves, Johnson P.A. represented Graziosi. Phelps Dunbar LLP represented the city parties.
To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan Kanu in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at email@example.com
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