(CN) – Omaha officials did not violate the free-speech rights of a public safety auditor when they fired her for releasing a report that criticized the Omaha Police Department, the 8th Circuit ruled, because she “was not speaking as a citizen when she published her report.”
Former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey fired Tristan Bonn in 2006 after she published “Anatomy of Traffic Stops,” a report that analyzed public complaints about the Omaha Police Department and mentioned the department’s “potentially discriminatory policing tactics.”
Bonn also spoke to a newspaper and a radio about the report.
A few days later, she was fired.
Fahey said Bonn’s release of the report without first notifying him showed insubordination. Paul Landrow, the mayor’s former chief of staff, cited other reasons for the firing, including her email to the newspaper about its coverage of the report, a “disrespectful” email she sent to Landrow, and critical comments about the mayor that she made to the media.
Bonn sued the city, the mayor and his chief of staff, claiming her firing violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the First Amendment. Publishing the report was constitutionally protected speech, she claimed, because she was “opposing systemic discrimination within the Omaha Police Department.”
But a federal judge granted summary judgment to the city, and the federal appeals panel in St. Louis affirmed.
Although Bonn’s report mentioned the potential fall-out from the department’s recruiting tactics, “these effects were far too attenuated from actual employment practices for Bonn to have a reasonable belief that her activity was protected by Title VII,” Judge Steven Colloton wrote.
“Employers engage in all sorts of activities that may deter potential applicants for employment, but these are not all ‘unlawful employment practices’ to which an employee may register opposition and then claim protection under the Title VII cause of action for retaliation,” he added.
The three-judge panel was equally unconvinced by Bonn’s free-speech claim, ruling that her comments to the media about the report were not protected because they were made as part of her regular duties.
“Bonn has no claim against the appellees based on their reactions to her comments to the media, because she was not speaking as a citizen when she made those remarks,” Colloton wrote. “Bonn spoke to the media pursuant to her official duties as the Public Safety Auditor. She acted in response to media inquiries about a report that she published as part of her work as auditor, and the media identified her as a public official rather than a private citizen.”