Court Upholds Termination of Boston Firefighter

A Massachusetts judge has rejected the appeal of a Boston firefighter who was terminated over a series a racist and homophobic social media posts. Octavius Rowe, a 15-year veteran, was fired by the Boston Fire Department on April 30, 2018 following a lengthy investigation.

Rowe, an African American who served as the vice president of Boston’s Vulcan Society, claimed he was being singled out for discipline over his posts 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 Massachusetts Civil Service Commission upheld Rowe’s termination, prompting his appeal to Suffolk County Superior Court. Judge Michael P. Doolin concluded that that the Commission‘s decision to uphold the termination “was based on substantial evidence and was not arbitrary and capricious.” Judge Doolin rejected Rowe’s First Amendment claims finding “while Rowe may have been speaking on matters of public concern as a citizen, his statements impair the proper function of the Department, in that they erode the public’s trust in the Department, and his speech is not constitutionally protected.” He also found that “the Commission was justified in determining that Rowe was guilty of substantial misconduct warranting termination.”

The decision outlines Rowe’s offensive posts at length, as well as listed several offensive posts made by white firefighters, and the penalties they received. Among Rowe’s posts cited by Judge Doolin:

  • 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 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 Rowe, with a clenched fist, wearing a t-shirt with a stick figure with Pan-African colors kicking a stick figure with LGBTQ colors in the groin;
  • 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 “HOMOPHILE LIVES MATTER”;
  • A reference to 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”; and
  • A reference to “SmallHats (So-called Jews)”

Here is a copy of the decision.

Rowe currently has a race discrimination suit pending against the fire department. Here is a ruling in that case from last December dismissing several of his claims.

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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