Suspended Firefighter Asks Supreme Court To Hear First Amendment Case

July 31, 2003 ( - A Georgia firefighter suspended in an alleged violation of the First Amendment has petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear his case.

>The latest move comes after a June ruling by the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that determined DeKalb Country officials did not violate the firefighter’s First Amendment rights when they suspended him, reversing a lower federal court’s decision.   However, the firefighter’s attorney, A Leroy Parks Jr, has notified US District Judge Robert Vining Jr. of the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia that he intends to seek a writ of certiorari from the US Supreme Court, according to a Fulton County Daily Report story.

>The nature of the exchange that lead to the suspension brings to light federal law that bans an employer from demoting or discharging a public employee for engaging in free speech, which is protected by the First Amendment. But according to the appeals court opinion, “An employer may, however, discipline an employee for insubordination,” and the First Amendment does not require an employer to tolerate an embarrassing, vulgar or otherwise inappropriate verbal attack simply because an employee is picketing.

Heated Exchange

>In 2001, firefighter James Travers was off duty and participating in a salary picket on public land when he spotted DeKalb’s chief executive officer (CEO) Vernon Jones and began chanting his name.   Jones, in turn, warned the firefighter that he would not tolerate insubordination. The two men then engaged in a verbal exchange and, according to the appellate opinion, “There was a sharp conflict between the plaintiff and the defendants as to what transpired at that time.”

>The exchanged led to a suspension of 30 days for conduct unbecoming an officer and insubordination to the CEO. A county merit officer upheld that suspension.

Travers then sued Jones, DeKalb Fire Chief Scott Wilder and the county, claiming he had been punished in retaliation for exercising his right to free speech.   Vining ruled in favor of Travers, refusing to grant summary judgment to the county in part because a determination depends on whether the plaintiff’s or the defendants’ version of the facts is correct.