A recent court ruling in Florida sheds some light on the freedoms and limitations of government employees when publicly voicing their views on social media. The employee, B. Stanley McCullars, worked as Assistant Financial Director for the Clerk of Court and Comptroller for the Seminole County, Florida local government. He was fired for publishing comments on social media.
In response to a press conference held by a State Attorney in a different county announcing that her office would not seek the death penalty under any circumstance or in any case, McCullars wrote a public post on social media that stated: “maybe she [the State Attorney] should get the death penalty” and that “she should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree.” McCullars deleted the posting but it was already too late, as others had already taken screenshots of it.
The State Attorney’s comments triggered widespread commentary. Most notably, Florida Governor Rick Scott announced that all capital cases assigned to that State Attorney would be reassigned to a different state attorney.
The day after the social media posting, Mr. McCullars’s supervisor told him not to worry because his job was safe since his posting “was clearly a First Amendment issue.” Strangely enough, however, he was placed on administrative leave an hour later. A day after that, McCullars was terminated because of the social media post and was instructed to provide a resignation letter.
In light of his firing, Mr. McCullars sued his former employer for civil rights violations since be believed that he was punished solely for freely expressing his views.
In these types of cases, courts look to balance the employee’s free speech interests against any possible disruption that such statement might have on the government’s performance. In this particular case, the Court determined that Mr. McCullars’s post was made in his personal capacity as a private citizen and he was not speaking on behalf of the government.
The Court also considered that the post pertained to a matter of public debate and widespread interest. Because the topic of the post had to do with a matter of public concern, the Court described it as occupying the “highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values”, and as such, was entitled to “special protection.”
After taking these factors into account, the Court on April 2 denied an attempt to have the case dismissed and allowed it to proceed.
At Alan Lescht & Associates P.C., we take your First Amendment rights seriously. If you believe that you have been adversely treated at your job for speaking your mind like Mr. McCullars, we can help. Give us a call today at (202) 463-6036, email us, or visit our website.