Sgt. “rant” on Facebook about Chief was not speaking about matter of public concern, so no First Amendment protection says 5th Circuit.

Graziosi v. City of Greenville Mississippi, No. 13-60900 (5th Cir. January 9, 2015).

This is a First Amendment employment retaliation case where the 5th Circuit affirmed the granting of the City’s summary judgment motion.

Graziosi was a sergeant of 25 years with the Greenville Police Department and was dismissed after posting statements critical of the Chief of Police to the Mayor’s public Facebook page (while off duty). The comments came after her return from a suspension for other policy violations. Her comments on Facebook expressed her displeasure over the Greenville Police Department’s failure to send a representative to the funeral of a police officer killed in the line of duty and questioned the leadership ability of the Chief. The Chief did not prohibit officers who wished to attend from going, but forbid the use of City vehicles for the transportation to a sister City where the funeral was taking place. After her dismissal, Graziosi filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 under the First Amendment. The City filed a summary judgment which the trial court granted holding Graziosi was not speaking as a citizen but as a public employee and was not speaking about a matter of public concern.

The Fifth Circuit first held that Graziosi was speaking as a citizen and not as a public employee. Making public statements was not part of Graziosi’s job duties and she was off-duty. However, her comments did not address a matter of public concern, but instead, involved a dispute over an intra-departmental decision. Her statements did not reveal the Chief was not faithfully discharging his duties nor that the city leaders were mismanaging funds.  It conveyed no information at all other than the fact that a single employee was upset with the status quo of an internal decision, i.e.,  a personal “rant.” Weighing the content, form, and context the Fifth Circuit held the rant was not about a matter of public concern and not protected. Further, the PD was justified in terminating her in order to prevent insubordination within the department after the PD established a noticeable disruption of normal operations after the comments. The PD would have also been justified to prevent future disruption. The trial court properly granted the summary judgment motion.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: STEWART, Chief Judge, BENAVIDES, and OWEN, Circuit Judges.  Opinion by Chief Justice Stewart. The attorney listed for Graziosi is Joe Bradley Pigott.  The attorney listed for the City is Gary Erwin Friedm