South Carolina Fire Captain Claims Anti-Police Social Media Post Was Protected Speech

A Columbia fire captain who was terminated after posting comments online that were critical of law enforcement following a shooting death of one of his relatives, is filing suit to get his job back. Captain Ameer Bagley was fired on April 10, 2020, just 3 days after the death of 17-year-old Joshua Ruffin.

Ruffin was shot by a Columbia police officer, prompting many in the community to question the circumstances. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Plaintiff, like many members of the community, responded emotionally and publicly to the news of Ruffin’s death.
  • On approximately April 9, 2020, Plaintiff published a post to his private Instagram account after learning of Ruffin’s death.
  • Plaintiff’s post expressed his frustration with the rise of deaths of private citizens by Police Officers.
  • Plaintiff’s post did not identify the City of Columbia Police Department or any specific City of Columbia Police Officer.
  • On April 10, 2020, Plaintiff was called to a meeting with Fire Chief Aubrey D. Jenkins and was informed that he was being terminated.
  • Plaintiff was told he was being terminated because his Instagram post allegedly violated the City of Columbia Social Media Policy and displayed conduct “unbecoming of a City Employee.”
  • Furthermore, Chief Jenkins said that Plaintiff’s post and opinions contained therein were reprehensible and reflected negatively on Plaintiff and the City of Columbia Fire Department.
  • Therefore, Plaintiff was terminated by Defendants on April 10, 2020.

Captain Bagley claims his comments were protected speech under the First Amendment. He further alleges that the department failed to complete a full investigation into the matter prior to making a “decision to terminate [that] was rushed and made without knowledge of all relevant facts.”

The suit was originally filed in Richland County Court of Common Pleas earlier this year, but was removed to the US District Court for the District of South Carolina today. Besides naming the city, Chief Jenkins, City Manager Teresa Wilson, and the city council are named as defendants. Here is a copy of the complaint.

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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