Louisiana Firefighter Loses First Amendment Claim Over Facebook Post

A Louisiana firefighter who was fired for referring to his fire district’s board of commissioners as “a board of clueless idiots” on Facebook, has lost his First Amendment lawsuit to get his job back.

Joseph Larry Moreau, Jr. was fired by St. Landry Fire Protection District No. 3 last year. In January, 2018 Moreau replied to a friend’s Facebook post about a local teacher who was removed from a school board meeting by police. Moreau posted:

  • [A]ll of this going on with this poor teacher being treated so unfairly makes one thing perfectly clear. . . These “boards” everywhere, ruled by good old boy politics need to be dissolved ASAP..!! We have the same exact problem at our fire department . . . A board of clueless idiots making the decisions that affect many including the very employees that actually do the job.. It’s a joke . . [. . .]. I hope this teacher makes them pay…and pay big time.!!

In March, 2018, following an investigation into the remarks and some followup remarks he made to the board’s secretary, Moreau was terminated for making “‘disparaging remarks’ about the Board of Commissioners on Facebook.”

Moreau filed suit in US District Court for the Western District of Louisiana claiming that his termination was retaliation for protected speech. He also claimed his due process rights were violated and that his termination violated the Louisiana Firefighter Bill of Rights.

The court recognized the initial inquiry in a public employee First Amendment claim involving social media is whether the post involved a matter of public concern, and whether the employee posted as a private citizen.

Curiously, the court ended the inquiry at the first issue, concluding that:

  • When considering all factors, as it must, the Court finds as a matter of law that Moreau’s speech was predominantly private, not public, and was not protected.
  • Therefore, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on his First Amendment claims.

For the sake of my readers understanding the law, let me point out this ruling is probably not one to rely upon for determining whether certain speech is a matter of public concern, or a personal, petty or private grievance. Political speech and criticism of elected officials is universally considered to qualify as a matter of public concern. Nevertheless, because the court ruled the way it did, it never reached the other First Amendment issues of: did he post as a private citizen; did his interests in posting outweigh the district’s interests in regulating his speech (Pickering balancing test); and did the speech cause actual harm or disruption to the mission and function of the employer. Incidentally, had the court addressed these additional issues, it likely could have resulted in the same outcome for Moreau, but the reasoning would have been on firmer ground.

The court also disposed of Moreau’s due process claims by saying he failed to raise them within the applicable statute of limitations, and his bill of rights claim by ruling that the bill of rights act does not provide for an award of damages.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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