Court: No Speech Protection for Officer Who Spoke with Press

Court: No Speech Protection for Officer Who Spoke with Press Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ

A former Mississippi corrections officer was not protected by First Amendment speech rights when he was fired for providing a reporter with information about the arrest of a college football player, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled Thursday.

On New Year’s Day 2012, a local sports reporter went to the Lee County jail to find out why a Mississippi State wide receiver was behind bars, the appeals court said. A jail supervisor named Rodricus Hurst told him the player was locked up after a bar fight that had taken place the night before.

Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson read an article in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that quoted Hurst. The sheriff fired Hurst, a shift sergeant, for violating the department’s media-relations policy, according to the Fifth Circuit.

The policy, according to the appeals court, restricted the ability of officers to divulge to the press only information publicly available elsewhere unless granted clearance to do so by the sheriff.

Hurst sued the department for alleged First Amendment violations. He argued his speech should have been considered citizen speech protected by the First Amendment. A federal trial judge sided with the department.

Upholding the lower judge’s decision, Chief Judge Carl Stewart of the Fifth Circuit wrote that Rodricus Hurst’s speech was a form of employee speech “ordinarily within the scope of [Hurst’s] duties” and thus not protected by the First Amendment.

“While government employees are not stripped of their First Amendment right to freedom of speech by virtue of their employment, this right is not without exception,” Stewart wrote in the ruling.

Hurst, the judge wrote, “was an officer who, according to the department’s media-relations policy, could have obtained authorization from his superiors to speak to the media about the event involving Bumphis that took place while Hurst was off duty the night before. He chose, however, to make statements to the media without obtaining that authorization and was ultimately terminated for doing so.”

Contact Jimmy Hoover at jhoover@alm.com.

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