North Carolina Captain Terminated for Social Media Post Claims Free Speech Violation

A North Carolina fire captain who was terminated in 2023 for sharing social media posts the city considered to be offensive, has filed suit alleging a violation of his right to free speech. Captain Dustin Jones filed suit against the City of Greensboro in Guilford County Superior Court earlier this month. It was removed to US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina by the city today.

According to the city’s removal notice:

  • Plaintiff’s employment with GFD was terminated on May 12, 2023 because of, among other reasons, his continued inappropriate use of social media in violation of policy.

According to Captain Jones’ complaint:

  • The Plaintiff was unofficially reprimanded on multiple occasions for the speech that he shared on his Facebook page. The Department subjected Plaintiff to an “informal coaching session” regarding his social media usage, on or about March 10th, 2021.
  • On November 18th, 2022, the Plaintiff was called in for a meeting with Maria Hicks-Few and Deputy Fire Chief, Dwayne Church. This meeting was to discuss a social media post where the Plaintiff shared a video of the Guilford County Sheriff, Danny Rogers, expressing his personal, political opinions about the Sheriff, a public and elected official.
  • On February 7th, 2023, the Plaintiff met with Fire Chief G. J. Robinson, III about what was characterized as an “offensive post” made by the Plaintiff on his Facebook page.
  • In both meetings, the Plaintiff was instructed to stop sharing his political views.
  • This instruction has a chilling effect on the Plaintiff and others similarly situated to the Plaintiff.
  • The Plaintiff took these meetings as further evidence that his employment was being threatened if he did not comply with the Defendants’ request to cease sharing political speech on his social media platforms.
  • The political speech shared on the Plaintiffs Face book page was intended to communicate something of value to public discourse, and promote conversation on a public forum. Said posts were shared on the Plaintiffs personal social media platform.
  • The Department did not conduct an official investigation, or produce an investigatory report related to the Plaintiffs allegedly offensive Facebook posts.
  • On May 12th, 2023, the Plaintiff received a termination letter issued by Greensboro Fire Chief G.J. Robinson III is attached hereto and incorporated by reference as “Exhibit I. “
  • Appended to the termination letter are the social media posts in question.
  • The termination letter concluded that the Plaintiff violated Department policies 03.15.05 and 03.15.10, which govern supervisors’ role, responsibilities, and penalties.
  • On May 18th, 2023, the Plaintiff sent a letter of appeal to the Greensboro City Manager. Said letter is attached hereto and incorporated by reference as “Exhibit 2 “.
  • On May 26th, 2023, the Plaintiff received a letter from the Greensboro City Manager upholding the dismissal. Said letter is attached hereto and incorporated by reference as “Exhibit 3 “.
  • The Greensboro Fire Department and the City of Greensboro did not follow their own disciplinary procedures in terminating the Plaintiff. They offered no progressive discipline instead opting for termination where it was not warranted pursuant to the Department’s own policies. A true and accurate copy of the Department’s Disciplinary policy, as it existed at the time of the Plaintiff’s Facebook posts, is attached hereto and incorporated by reference as “Exhibit 4 “.
  • The Plaintiff’s Facebook posts were not affiliated with, or related to, the Greensboro Fire Department or the City of Greensboro in any manner.
  • The Plaintiffs Facebook posts caused no internal disruption within the Department.
  • The Plaintiffs Facebook posts did not affect his ability to work with, or get along with, other coworkers.
  • The Plaintiff’s Facebook posts were made while he was off-duty and operating in his individual capacity.
  • Prior to his termination, the Plaintiff successfully performed all duties and responsibilities of his position.
  • His Facebook posts had no impact on his ability to perform or interact with his coworkers.

The complaint alleges violations of Captain Jones’ First Amendment rights; violation of his state free speech rights under Article 1 Section 14 of the North Carolina Constitution; political interference under two state laws, N.C.G.S. § 160A-169 and N.C.G.S. § 153A-99; wrongful termination for engaging in lawful activities; and breach of contract.

One challenge will be the language in the fire department’s rules related to social media.

  • Responsibly use social networking, electronic communications, or other media technology opportunities in a manner that does not discredit, dishonor or embarrass the City of Greensboro, the Department, the fire service and the public. Failure to resolve or report inappropriate use of media applications and social websites equates to condoning Inappropriate behavior.

That language risks being deemed a prior restraint, and certainly will not help the city in justifying its decision. Language matters, especially when it comes to the First Amendment related to prior restraint. We discuss this issue extensively in Leadership Solutions to Firefighter Social Media Problems. The next delivery is November 6, 2024. Here is an earlier post on point that helps explain some of the issues.

Here is a copy of the complaint.

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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