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Fireman's discipline for speaking out at Village Council meeting is not affirmed

This week the Sixth Circuit reversed an Ohio District Court and sent a fireman's Section 1983 retaliation claim back to the lower court for further fact finding.  The fireman was the leader of the Village's "Rescue/Dive" team and critical of the Village's cost-cutting decision to disband the team.  When two young boys drowned soon afterward, Ron Westmoreland appeared before the Village Council, and with inflammatory rhetoric, argued that the Council's cost-cutting measures were partially responsible for the latest boy's death.

The fireman's speech was certainly intemperate, and the Village authorities disciplined him by docking his pay. They argued that he profited personally from overtime and equipment purchases for the dive team and that his speech was inflammatory and false.  Westmoreland filed a claim against the officials arguing that disciplining him for his public speech was illegal retaliation for his exercise of his First Amendment right to speak as a private person on matters of public interest.  The local District Court rejected his claim and he appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The Appellate Court Judges, including Traverse City native Richard Griffin, reversed the lower court's holding that Westmoreland was not entitled to First Amendment protection. For a public employee's speech to be protected, "his interest as a citizen in commenting on [a matter of public concern must] outweigh 'the interest of the State, as an employer.' "  The judges noted that Westmoreland appeared on his own time, out of uniform at a public meeting, and that as "determined by the content, form, and context" of his statements, they related to a matter of public concern.  As such, the comments were protected by the First Amendment unless they were "knowningly or recklessly false." 

The Court then examined Westmoreland's statement and explained that under prior decisions, he did not need to prove that his statements were true or accurate.  Rather, it is the Defendants' duty to prove that the statements were both false and "knowingly or recklessly made."  The judges noted that there was a factual basis for Westmoreland's statements of opinion and that the lower court erred in the legal standard it applied in dismissing his claim of illegal retaliation.

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