Corrections officer interview with reporter not protected by the First Amendment, appeals court rules

By Chelsea Partington | Sep 11, 2014

NEW ORLEANS – The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Lee County Sheriff’s Department was just in firing a corrections officer after his alleged violation of the department’s media relations policy.

The plaintiff-appellant, Rodricus Carltez Hurst, filed suit against his former employer, Lee County, Miss. claiming that his communication with the media was protected by the First Amendment.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Department hired Hurst in 2008. Hurst was employed as a shift sergeant in Lee County Jail and acted as supervisor to eight other correctional officers.

On New Year’s Day of 2012, Hurst is reported to have arrived at Lee County Jail and learned that a Mississippi State University football player, Chad Bumphis, had been arrested the night before by the Tupelo Police Department in Tupelo, Miss. The jail supplies detainment space for multiple Lee County law enforcement agencies, including the Tupelo department.

According to the ruling, many media representatives called the jail seeking information about Bumphis’ arrest. Hurst took many of these calls. The department’s media relations policy under Sheriff Jim H. Johnson stated that non-designees, such as Hurst, were allowed to reveal certain ‘public information’ to the media including the limited information entered on the department’s docket book and website. According to the court record, Hurst had spoken with members of the media numerous times over the course of his employment with the jail.

Brad Locke, a sports writer for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, allegedly traveled to the jail on New Year’s Day and interviewed Hurst about Bumphis’ incident. Later that same day, Locke’s article concerning Bumphis’ arrest was published online and in print. Certain quotes in the article were attributed to Hurst, including one stating “when the fight broke out, they [the Tupelo Police Department] started taking people to jail.”

Upon reading the articles, Sheriff Johnson directed that department personnel question Hurst regarding the statements. Hurst confirmed that he had spoken with the reporter and provided a written statement, specifying: “I told the reporter from what I had heard a group fight had broken out and somehow he [Bumphis] got cut on the neck.”

Sheriff Johnson fired Hurst for violating the department’s media relations policy after reading Hurst’s written testimony.

Hurst applied for unemployment benefits after his termination. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security determined that Hurst was discharged after wrongfully releasing information to the media without authorization from the Sheriff, and so denied his application.

Following Hurst’s appeal, an administrative law judge also held that Hurst had improperly released information to the media in violation of the department’s media relations policy. Hurst went on to bring suit in federal court.

Lee County filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the findings of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security and the administrative law judge should have a preclusive effect on the district court proceedings.

The district court denied the motion in part and granted the motion in part because “the MDES factual determination is entitled to preclusive deference; however, the facts established by the ALJ are not dispositive of the questions of whether Lee County Sheriff’s Department policy on communication with the media by employees is constitutionally valid under the First Amendment.”

Hurst v. Lee County, Mississippi proceeded to jury trial. Lee County filed a Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law asserting that Hurst did not have sufficient evidence to support his argument.

The court granted the motion in favor of Lee County, and ruled that “Hurst spoke to the reporter as an employee of the Sheriff’s Department as part of his official job duties, and any part of the speech Hurst engaged in with Mr. Locke that would not be considered part of his official job duties—therefore speech engaged in as a private citizen—was nevertheless unprotected because it was not of ‘public concern.’ “

Hurst appealed, claiming that the district court erroneously granted Lee County’s Rule 50 motion because his speech with Locke should have been considered citizen speech protected by the First Amendment.

The court disagreed with Hurst’s claim, citing the Supreme Court’s statement that for an employee’s speech to qualify for First Amendment protection, he must be speaking “as a citizen on a matter of public concern…when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”

The Fifth Circuit held that Hurst was an officer who could have requested authorization to speak with the media about the Bumphis incident, but never asked for such permission. Because Sheriff Johnson’s media relations policy states that employees like Hurst were allowed to field calls from the media within a limited scope of information, the court found that Hurst’s speech fell within the parameters of his official duties and were therefore unprotected by the First Amendment.

The case was heard by Chief Justice Carl E. Stewart, Justice Gregg J. Costa and Justice Jacques L. Wiener Jr.

Case no. 13-60540.

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