Former employee’s comments to media not protected by First Amendment says 5th Circuit since they were part of his job duties

Hurst v. Lee County, Mississippi No. 13-60540 (5th Cir., August 21, 2014).

This is a First Amendment retaliation in employment case where the Fifth Circuit affirmed a take nothing order on an employee’s termination claim after making reports to the media.

Hurst was a corrections officer with the Lee County Sheriff’s Department. The Department had a policy that only the Sheriff or his designee could provide information to the media, with the exception of certain public information contained on the website and booking sheets. On New Year’s Eve, a Mississippi State University football player had been arrested and numerous media requests came in for information on the arrest. Hurst fielded many of the calls and revealed far more information than permitted under the policy. He was terminated and filed suit for First Amendment retaliation. The case proceeded to trial but the County filed a Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of the case which the trial court granted. Hurst appealed.

The court first analyzed whether the speech was protected under the First Amendment applying a typical four-part analysis out of Pickering and Garcetti. To be protected, the speech must be from the standpoint of a citizen about a matter of public concern and not merely as an employee as part of their job. Deputies like Hurst were authorized to field media calls and provide limited information out of the booking sheets. Hurst also could have sought authorization from the Sheriff to provide additional information but chose not to. The media information was part of his job duties and therefore not protected under the First Amendment. The judgment as a matter of law was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Chief Justice Steward, Justice Wiener and Justice Costa. The attorney listed for Hurst is Jim D. Waide, III.  The attorney listed for the County is William C. Murphree.