Earlier this month, a former Bourne, Massachusetts firefighter filed suit against the Town and municipal administrator, his former employer and a municipal administrative official in a Boston federal court. Former firefighter Richard Doherty alleged that the defendants violated his First Amendment rights by terminating his employment after he posted certain comments on Facebook.
The 47-year-old Mattapoisett resident had been a Bourne Fire Department paramedic and firefighter for 16 years prior to his dismissal last February.
Doherty was quoted as having posited that recovering his employment and reputation were his primary motivations for commencing the litigation. Doherty’s grim observation that “[I] have a family to take care of” also echoed apparent pecuniary considerations. Doherty’s claims include back pay, reinstatement, legal fees, and compensation for emotional distress.
The main point of contention in the case seems to center around the alleged retaliatory motive underlying Doherty’s discharge. Per court pleadings, Town officials allegedly violated Doherty’s First Amendment free speech rights by firing him in retaliation for private postings he made on his personal Facebook page.
Ostensibly, Doherty’s remarks were highly critical of various practices and issues of concern within fire department. A representative speaking on behalf of Doherty’s attorney likened such commentary to a worker who vents by steam about his or her employment conditions while visiting a local bar. The lawyer observed quite aptly that such utterances have traditionally constituted legally protected speech.
The Town’s termination ruling found that Doherty’s posts “ridiculed and disparaged” various police and fire department officials. Doherty says that he was mainly concerned about his fellow firemens’ safety and welfare, as the department took a lackadaisical approach to such issues.
This case is reminiscent of the old adage, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Historically, First Amendment Free Speech rights have been the “holiest of holies” in American jurisprudence. Courts have been justifiably reluctant to limit the free expression of diverse ideologies and opinions.
Some contexts do constitute legally valid prior restraints on free speech, however. A famous example is a man’s false scream of “fire” in a crowded theater.
Case law analysis portends that the ultimate outcome of this case will likely hinge upon the court’s factual findings of Doherty’s true motivation for the disputed postings.
If the court finds his primary motivation to have been legitimate concern over vital matters of public interest, he will likely prevail. If, however, it finds his motivations were personal, he may be left without legal recourse.