Palm Beach County Social Media Suit Dismissed

A lawsuit filed last year by two captains with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue after they were disciplined for social media posts, has been dismissed by a federal court judge. Captain AJ O’Laughlin and Captain Crystal Little filed suit in Palm Beach County Circuit Court last May. It was later removed to federal court.

Both received a written warning for violating the department’s social media policy following a series of posts by Captain O’Laughlin criticizing a union official who sought to use “Union Time Pool” over the 2018 holidays. The lawsuit claimed the social media policy violated the First Amendment as a prior restraint, making the discipline unconstitutional. The suit also alleged a violation of the free speech provision in Florida’s constitution.

In dealing with the suit, US District Court Judge William P. Dimitrouleas concluded that Captains O’Laughlin and Little failed to “sufficiently alleged that the speech at issue related to a matter of public concern, rendering the Complaint due to be dismissed.” As explained by Judge Dimitrouleas:

  • For a public employee to bring a claim under the First Amendment against an employer the employee must have spoken as a citizen on a matter of public concern.
  • Whether a statement is a matter of public concern is a determination made based on the content, form and context of the speech.
  • In evaluating the content, form, and context, Court’s look at 1) “whether the ‘main thrust’ of the speech in question is essentially public in nature or private,” 2) “whether the speech was communicated to the public at large or privately to an individual” and 3) “what the speaker’s motivation was.”
  • Considering these factors, the Court finds that Plaintiffs fail to allege facts sufficient to demonstrate that the speech at issue addressed a matter of public concern.
  • Here, the content of the speech addressed the potential misuse of a Union Time Pool, an internal, union-specific, paid-time-off sharing mechanism. The speech did not address misuse of public dollars or the Fire Department’s budgeting priorities.
  • In addition, rather than being communicated to a public at large, Plaintiffs’ statements were made in the form of posts and a comment in a private Facebook group.
  • Further, the Facebook group was not built around a matter of public concern but rather Plaintiff O’Laughlin’s union election campaign.
  • Lastly, the context of Plaintiffs’ speech, based on the allegations in the complaint, suggest Plaintiffs were motivated to speak by personal interests in electing Plaintiff O’Lauglin to a union leadership position.
  • Plaintiffs’ statements were made months after the potentially misused application of UTP was canceled.
  • Such statements made months after the alleged issues had been resolved suggest that the statements were made to serve personal interests.
  • The statements were made during Plaintiff O’Laughlin’s campaign [for union office], and the speech focused on differentiating O’Laughlin’s promised behavior from the alleged indiscretion of Newsome.
  • The requirement that the speech at issue in the complaint be speech made by Plaintiffs as citizens on matters of public concern, does not change even though Plaintiffs challenge the social media policy as a prior restraint.

The court gave the captains until January 23, 2020 to amend their complaint before the case is formally dismissed. 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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