Termination Of Boston Firefighter For Outrageous Social Media Posts Upheld by Civil Service

The Massachusetts Civil Service Commission has upheld the termination of an outspoken African American firefighter from Boston who was terminated for his offensive social media posts. Octavius Rowe, a 15 year veteran, was fired on April 30, 2018 after a lengthy investigation.

Rowe, who served as the vice president of Boston’s Vulcan Society, claimed he was being singled out for discipline while white firefighters posted comparably offensive comments without any scrutiny. He also claimed his comments were unrelated to his job and protected by the First Amendment.

The Civil Service Commission decision was written by Commissioner Christopher C. Bowman, who was troubled by the manner in which Rowe’s social media activities where brought to light. As explained in the decision:

  • The genesis of the BFD’s investigation into Firefighter Rowe is troubling.
  • A white firefighter, who was appointed years ago after successfully challenging a consent decree that mandated preferences for minority candidates, forwarded a Facebook posting of Firefighter Rowe to the BFD’s Deputy Chief of Human Resources.
  • In the posting, Firefighter Rowe is wearing a sweatshirt with the word “Caucasians” written across the front and a white cartoon face with blond hair and a dollar sign in place of a feather.
  • Firefighter Rowe, while off-duty, was simply joining a national conversation regarding the topic of professional sports teams using Native Americans in their name and logo, which many find to be racist.
  • Even the firefighter who forwarded the posting testified that the photograph “made [him think]… It stirred conversation, healthy conversation, about, you know, basically, how a Native American feels when they have – like, they see an Atlanta Braves’ shirt or a Cleveland Indians shirt.”
  • Yet, this same firefighter forwarded the posting of Firefighter Rowe to BFD officials alleging a “double standard”, alluding to the disciplinary action taken against Firefighter JC, a white male, for his public posting stating that a national broadcast journalist should be “fucked roughly in the ass by a MAN”.
  • Equating the two postings is absurd. Yet, it triggered the BFD’s initial decision to begin reviewing Firefighter Rowe’s Facebook postings.
  • Several weeks later, an anonymous Twitter account user, forwarded a cropped picture taken from Firefighter Rowe’s Facebook account to Mayor Walsh and Commissioner Finn, showing a black man holding the bloodied head of another man.
  • Laying bare the intent of the anonymous Twitter account user, he/she effectively deleted the words referencing the “Nat Turner’s rebellion” which may have resulted in a more measured response by the Mayor and the Fire Commissioner.
  • Instead, Firefighter Rowe was immediately placed on paid administrative leave and, in an extraordinary move, Rowe was barred from entering any BFD facilities.
  • That swift action would be in sharp contrast to the relatively muted reaction of BFD officials, when it was alleged that a white firefighter had authored a Facebook posting containing the words “shut up nigger????”

Nonetheless, the commission concluded regardless of whether the initial investigation was founded on good cause, the resulting investigation uncovered numerous examples of outrageous conduct by Rowe that cannot be ignored, including:

  • A reference to the long-time head of the Boston Urban League as a “shoe-shine Negro”;
  • A reference to the then-Boston Police Superintendent (now Commissioner) as a “feckless, jolly black face”;
  • A statement that black men should not share their “genetic material” with a “filthy, filthy white woman” and that “laying with white women is like spitting in your mother’s womb”.
  • A post listing the date, time and location (including the name of the school and a map) where Firefighter Rowe objects to young boys and girls holding hands with members of the same sex.
  • Multiple references to gay men as “homophiles”.
  • A reference to so-called “homophiles” seeking to “normalize homophilia particularly among children in order to GAIN and EASE sexual access to them.”
  • References to lesbians as “lez-beasts”;
  • A reply to a person online stating: “You’re QUEER. You’re not significant enough for me to troll.”
  • Another online reply stating: “Why haven’t any homophiles been killed by Police?”
  • A picture of Firefighter Rowe, with a clenched fist, wearing a t-shirt with a stick figure with Pan-African colors kicking in the groin a stick figure with LGBTQ colors.
  • A reference to the head of the Boston Chapter of Black Lives Matter, a Boston resident, as a person with: “Homophile/Trans/Femm Interests”.
  • A reference to Black Lives Matter as “HOMOPHILES LIVES MATTER”.
  • A reference to the leaders of Black Lives Matter as “slow-witted, uniformed agents of sexuality confusion/cooning” who “cannot have access to our children.”
  • A reference to a black entertainer as a “COM-PLETE bitch”.
  • A reference to “SmallHats (So-called Jews)”

The commission considered Rowe’s contention that white firefighters were not similarly punished for their offensive posts, and concluded that the department had in fact taken disciplinary actions against white firefighters for their offensive posts.  Addressing Rowe’s argument about there being no relationship between his off-duty online activity and his employment as a firefighter, the commission concluded:

  • If a local business owner posts bigoted rants on Facebook, customers can choose not to patronize his or her business.
  • If a politician makes racists remarks, voters can choose another candidate.
  • When a resident calls 911 seeking fire or rescue services, however, they don’t have the option of denying access to their home to someone like Rowe, who posts bigoted comments to his public Facebook account while off-duty.
  • That is because, until recently, Rowe wore the uniform of the Boston Fire Department, which carries with it both respect and authority, including the authority to enter the homes of Boston residents who call for fire and rescue services.
  • Those residents include men and women who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and those who identify as queer and are questioning their sexual identity – people that Rowe publicly refers to as: “lez-beasts, homophiles and trans-homophiles” who, according to Rowe, are seeking to “normalize homophilia particularly among children in order to GAIN and EASE sexual access to them.”
  • Boston residents should not have to allow bigots like Rowe into their home in order to receive emergency services from the Boston Fire Department.
  • For these reasons, I find that that there is a substantial correlation or nexus between Rowe’s off-duty conduct and his employment, thus enabling the BFD to discipline him for his off duty misconduct.

As for Rowe’s First Amendment Arguments:

  • I also carefully considered Firefighter Rowe’s argument that the discipline imposed here violates his First Amendment rights.
  • While, ultimately, a Court is the proper venue to address Constitutional issues, I concur with the Boston Fire Department’s argument that there is no basis for concluding that Firefighter’s Rowe’s interest in free speech outweighed BFD’s interest in providing efficient and effective public safety services. In reaching this conclusion, I assumed that all of Firefighter’s postings and statements were made as a citizen on matters of public concern and I have accepted Firefighter Rowe’s assertion that his deep-rooted opposition to homosexuality is based on his religious beliefs.
  • As argued by the Boston Fire Department, under well-settled U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the First Amendment does not protect public employees when the government’s interest in providing efficient and effective services to the public outweighs their free speech interests.
  • Firefighter Rowe’s statements frustrated BFD’s public safety mission and threatened “community trust” in the department, which is “vitally important” to its function.
  • BFD’s interest in providing efficient and effective public safety services, by employing Firefighters who do not publicly post bigoted remarks, outweighs Firefighter Rowe’s interest in free speech.

Here is a copy of the decision:

The next unfortunate stop for Rowe and the BFD is likely to be a visit to US District Court.

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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