Washington Captain Wins First Amendment Reprieve

The Washington State Supreme Court has reinstated a lawsuit filed by a Spokane Valley firefighter who was terminated because he refused to stop emailing and posting religiously-themed posts over the fire department’s online system.

The ruling reversed decisions by the trial and intermediate appellate courts that concluded that the Spokane Valley Fire Department had the right to terminate Captain Jon Sprague back in 2012.

Captain Sprague started the Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship group in 2010. He began sending out emails announcing meetings and events and posting notices on the department’s electronic bulletin board. In January 2012 he was cited for improper use of the department’s email system. A letter of counseling for the same offense followed in April. In May when he persisted he received a letter of reprimand.

When the conduct continued into July, Captain Sprague was given a two-day suspension, prompting him to file a complaint with the EEOC alleging violation of the 1st Amendment and religious discrimination.

Despite what appears to have been a text-book implementation of progressive discipline, Captain Sprague refused to stop sending and posting the religion themes messages over the department’s system. In October, 2012, the Spokane Valley Board of Fire Commissioners voted unanimously to terminate Captain Sprague. His appeal to the department’s civil service commission was denied and he filed suit. Captain Sprague argued that his emails and postings to the department’s electronic bulletin board were no different than those the department permitted for other purposes, and were being targeted due to their religious viewpoint.

Both the trial court and the court of appeals upheld the discipline concluding the department’s policies were religion neutral and did not infringe on Captain Sprague’s First Amendment rights.

The Washington Supreme Court took an entirely different view of the facts, concluding that the “SVFD’s restrictions on his speech violated the First Amendment”. As explained by the court:

  • Based on the evidence that the parties have presented, we conclude that there are no genuine issues of material fact regarding whether SVFD engaged in viewpoint discrimination … [W]e hold that Sprague has met his initial burden to show that SVFD’s restrictions on his speech violated the First Amendment.
  • SVFD violated Sprague’s First Amendment right to free speech when it restricted Sprague’s speech that discussed the same topics as the EAP newsletters.
  • While SVFD’s policy was reasonable, SVFD applied it to Sprague in a manner that was not viewpoint neutral.
  • SVFD permitted some viewpoints, but excluded Sprague’s viewpoint.
  • Also, SVFD’s interest in avoiding an establishment clause violation does not outweigh Sprague’s interests under the First Amendment. Permitting equal access to a forum does not endorse religion.
  • Both our state constitution and the federal constitution restrict the use of government resources to promote religion. We do not stray from this indisputable fact.
  • Instead, our holding today merely recognizes that when a government permits speech, it may not discriminate against only certain viewpoints—whether those viewpoints are religious or not.
  • This holding is consistent with both state and federal constitutional law restricting the use of government resources in the context of religious messages.
  • Our holding also does not prohibit government employers from taking appropriate action to prevent parties from using government resources in an unconstitutional manner
  • Traditionally, there are three different kinds of forums in which a government may restrict speech: public forums, limited public forums, and nonpublic forums.”
  • Here, the parties agree that SVFD’s e-mail system and electronic bulletin board are nonpublic forums.
  • In nonpublic forums, the employer’s interest in regulating speech is highest and receives the least scrutiny.
  • An employer may restrict employees’ speech as long as the restrictions are reasonable and viewpoint neutral.
  • A reasonable restriction “need not be the most reasonable or the only reasonable limitation.”
  • Instead, the employer may create any reasonable restriction to ensure that the forum will be reserved for its intended purpose.
  • However, a reasonable restriction cannot be justified when it “is in fact based on the desire to suppress a particular point of view.”
  • When the government targets particular views taken by speakers on a subject, it violates the First Amendment’s requirement of viewpoint neutrality “[T]he government violates the First Amendment when it denies access to a speaker solely to suppress the point of view he espouses on an otherwise includible subject.'”
  • The emails he sent that discuss the mental health and well-being of firefighters, such as issues of suicide and stress relief, relate to public safety and are matters of public concern. Sprague’s former boss had recently committed suicide, and SVFD paid for Sprague to take suicide prevention courses.
  • Given this context, it is fair to conclude that the mental health of SVFD firefighters, responsible for protecting the public safety of Spokane County, was likely a matter of particular and current concern to the community at the time of Sprague’s e-mails.
  • Other courts have held that similar issues relating to the mental health of firefighters constitute matters of public concern Sprague’s e-mails discussing leadership also constitute matters of public concern.
  • Courts have held that speech dealing with the functioning of government, including the efficiency of management and operations of agencies, are matters of public concern.
  • However, some of Sprague’s communications clearly fall outside the scope of public concern.
  • The communications that he sent discussing the Fellowship’s social activities and logo design are not matters of public concern.
  • They in no way relate to public safety, the efficiency of government operations, or any other topic of public concern.
  • Consequently, any of Sprague’s communications that touched on these topics do not merit protection under the First Amendment, and SVFD was justified in restricting Sprague’s speech in those contexts.
  • The record reflects that the bulletin board was used for a variety of personal uses, from seeking recommendations for a babysitter to asking whether anyone had any hay for sale.
  • Sprague posted information about Fellowship activities, as well as links to and short descriptions about the Fellowship’s topics of discussion. He clearly intended to reach SVFD employees with his communications; he spoke on behalf of or about the Fellowship, which was created by and consisted of SVFD employees.
  • SVFD presents no evidence that Sprague’s communications were otherwise considered “disruptive, offensive, abusive or threatening” beyond the attempts of his supervisors to halt the postings.
  • Considering the broad purpose of the SVFD electronic bulletin board for a variety of personal uses relating to SVFD employees, we hold that SVFD’s restrictions preventing Sprague from posting about the Fellowship on the bulletin board were unreasonable.
  • Given that SVFD’s restrictions on the e-mail system were reasonable, we turn to whether they were viewpoint neutral.
  • A reasonable restriction cannot be justified when it “is in fact based on the desire to suppress a particular point of view.”
  • Here, official Policy 171—restricting personal use of SVFD’s e-mail system—was viewpoint neutral.
  • However, there is evidence that SVFD did not apply Policy 171 to Sprague in a viewpoint neutral manner.
  • SVFD opened its e-mail system for discussion of the topics in the EAP newsletters. SVFD forwarded the e-mails over the system and concedes that employee discussion of those topics would be permissible.
  • For example, one EAP newsletter featured the image of a woman meditating and discussed strategies to “Change Your Mood” by providing suggestions to reduce negative and stressful thoughts: use deep breathing exercises, exercise regularly, focus on uplifting and inspiring reading and other activities, and remember with gratitude the positive things in life.
  • Other EAP newsletters discussed suicide and team building. In comparison, Sprague sent e-mails discussing the same topics.
  • For example, Sprague sent an e-mail with suggestions on how to reduce stress and deal with difficult situations: build a life that will withstand stress and reexamine your life’s foundations.
  • He also sent e-mails that discussed suicide and the relationship of leaders and followers.
  • Some of Sprague’s e-mails included religious quotes, while others featured secular quotes.
  • Each e-mail provided resources on the relevant topics and/or directed recipients to the Fellowship’s newsletter.

The case was remanded back to the trial court for some final determinations, including whether the fire department had sufficient grounds outside of the protected activity to have terminated Captain Sprague.

Here is a copy of the decision: Sprague v. SVFD WA SC

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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