NY Firefighter Claims Termination For Facebook Posts Violates 1st Amendment

A New York firefighter who was suspended and ultimately terminated from his fire department over social media posts, has filed suit against his department, four chief officers, and four fire commissioners. John Tyson filed suit earlier this month against the St. James Fire Department, the St. James Fire District, Fire Chief Edward K. Springer Jr., First Assistant Chief Ryan D. Davis, Second Assistant Chief David Mills, Third Assistant Chief Frank Sapienza, Fire Commissioner Edward Springer Sr., Fire Commissioner Edward Kearney, Fire Commissioner John Young and Fire Commissioner William Theobalt.

The suit alleges that Tyson’s First Amendment and due process rights were violated. It also includes counts alleging conspiracy, retaliation and state law claims. According to the complaint, Tyson opposed a bond issue that would have allowed the department to construct a new $12.25 Million fire department headquarters. The department and district leadership supported the bond issue, which was subsequently defeated.

Tyson claims he made politically-based postings on Facebook relative to the bond issue that upset the department leadership, and that two suspensions as well as his termination were the direct result. He alleges that his postings were made as a private citizen, which is necessary in order to have First Amendment protection. The complaint acknowledges he inadvertently made the posts as the “St. James Fire Department Engine Co #1.”  Tyson served as the administrator for Engine Co. #1’s Facebook page at the time.

According to the complaint:

  • When an administrator of a Facebook group visits that particular group while signed onto his or her personal Facebook account, comments he or she makes on the group are automatically set to appear to be posted from the group itself, rather than the individual.
  • In order to change that setting, when an administrator clicks on a photograph in order to comment on it, he or should must click on the small drop-down arrow near the group photograph, and change the “Liking and commenting as [name of group]” to “Liking and commenting as [personal name].”
  • At the time Tyson posted his comment … he was not aware of these Facebook settings regarding posts by a group administrator on the group’s page.
  • Tyson posted the comment while signed into his personal Facebook account, and when he posted the comment he was acting in his personal and individual capacity.
  • Although the comment itself was publically attributed to the [fire company] … he intended, and believed at the time, that he was posting the comment in his personal and individual capacity.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Tyson v St James Fire Department COMPLAINT

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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