Jailer Properly Fired for Inappropriate Interview

     New Orleans (CN) – A former corrections officer’s comments to a news reporter were not protected speech by the First Amendment, the 5th Circuit ruled.
     Rodricus Carltez Hurst sued Lee County, Mississippi in 2012, claiming he was fired in retaliation for releasing information about the New Year’s Eve arrest of Mississippi State University football player Chad Bumphis.
     The sheriff’s department has a media relations policy that Sheriff Jim Johnson said Hurst violated when he disclosed information about the incident leading up to the football player’s arrest.
     Hurst claimed comments to sports reporter Brad Locke that appeared in print and online editions of a local newspaper should be considered citizen speech and not employee speech.
     Before the original case was sent to the jury, the district court judge ruled from the bench, granting Lee County’s Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law.
     “The court’s ruling stated that: (1) Hurst spoke to the reporter as an employee of the Sheriff’s Department as part of his official job duties; and (2) 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 continued to argue on appeal that his comments should be considered citizen speech under the First Amendment because it did not constitute “employee speech pursuant to his job duties.”
     But the 5th Circuit judge disagreed, concluding Hurst’s comments were within the scope of his duties and “did not merely concern those duties,” leaving the nearly five-year employee not immune to employer discipline, including termination.
     The court considered whether the interest of the government employer “in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees” outweighs the employee’s interest as a citizen, “in commenting upon matters of public concern.”
     “Here, Hurst was an officer who, according to the Department’s media relations policy, could have obtained authorization from his supervisors 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.”
     The court did not look at whether the Rule 50 motion was erroneously granted in light of their conclusion that his comments were not protected First Amendment speech.

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