First Amendment Newsflash 5/29-6/12

Federal Court News

Meriden County motion to dismiss First Amendment lawsuit is denied

In 2017 a Meriden County resident, Christopher Dingwell Sr., filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that the Meriden Police Department engaged in retaliatory behavior against him and that the department violated his First Amendment right by blocking his criticizing posts from the department’s Facebook page.

Last week the City of Meriden filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant is presiding over the case and denied the city’s motion last week to dismiss the lawsuit. She cited the recent federal ruling that President Donald Trump can’t block Twitter followers.

Judge Bryant wrote in her decision that, “It would be contrary to the purpose of the qualified immunity doctrine to construe it to allow a police department to intentionally silence its critics by using its power and authority to intimidate or threaten citizens.”

Attorneys for the police department and city claim that the case should be dismissed because the police officers qualify for immunity, and that one of the defendants was exercising his own First Amendment right. Judge Bryant has addressed this argument stating that qualified immunity would be decided later in the process and that even recognizing Williams’ claim to First Amendment rights doesn’t disqualify Dingwell’s claim of retaliation.

A factor to consider as this case proceeds forward is that the federal court ruling that Trump cannot block followers because his Twitter account represents a public forum due to his being a public official is being appealed by the U.S. Justice Department.

Georgia teacher’s First Amendment right to free speech on social media may be heard before the Supreme Court

Kelly Tucker was a middle school teacher in Tifton, Georgia. Approximately one-third of her students were black. In December 2014 Black Lives Matter protestors demonstrated at the Tifton Christmas parade. In response to this Tucker expressed her opinion on a public Facebook post asking whether the protestors’ demonstration was appropriate.

Tucker typed her comments on her own computer while off duty. Her words though quickly spread online. In her post, she offered the view that “all lives matter” but also that the Black Lives Matter signs should have said, “take the hood off your head, and pull up your dang pants, and quit impregnating everybody.”

The school administration responded to complaints about Tucker’s comments by suspending her for five days without pay and assigning her to diversity training. Tucker claims as a result of the school administration’s action she has had to retire early because of the hostile work environment created.

Tucker filed suit against the school officials seeking damages on the grounds that at the time she published her opinions to Facebook she was speaking as a citizen on current affairs and that by punishing her for doing so violated her First Amendment rights.

This week Tucker lost her appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court which unanimously agreed with the state Court of Appeal’s decision to dismiss the case on the grounds that Tucker cannot sue public officials in this situation.

Justice Nels Peterson though did write a concurrence in the opinion to express his concern that the school officials may have violated Tucker’s free speech rights. In his opinion, he states, “Tucker’s Facebook screed does not strike me as possessing any redeeming social value. But the First Amendment does not turn on whether a judge or society as a whole believes a particular viewpoint is worth sharing.”

Tucker says that Justice Peterson’s comments have given her a, “moral victory” which helped her in making the decision to try and take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her attorney, Craig Webster, hopes that the Supreme Court will rule that school officials are not entitled to “qualified immunity” in this case and that Tucker’s constitutional rights were violated.

Decision issued for Florida city and its Chief of Police that they violated the First Amendment by sponsoring a prayer vigil

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Ocala Division, recently granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs’ claims that the city of Ocala and Police Chief Kenneth Gregory Graham violated the First Amendment by endorsing a prayer vigil.

The suit against the city and police department was filed by Art Rojas, Lucinda and Daniel Hale, and Frances Jean Porgal. In their complaint, they alleged that a prayer vigil held in 2014 after a crime spree that left several children injured, violated the Establishment Clause that prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another.

Judge Corrigan emphasized Supreme Court rulings have made it clear that governments cannot sponsor a religious message, such as the one in this case that states “fervent prayer” is needed to combat the recent crime spree. Judge Corrigan stated that “[The prayer vigil] sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

The decision states that, “The court is left with but one conclusion: Chief Graham’s actions violated the Establishment Clause.” Mayor Guinn, who was included in the lawsuit,  could not be found liable for the vigil as he had no part in creating it and was protected by qualified immunity. The court deemed though that the mayor’s actions, as well as the chief’s actions in the eight days between creating the prayer vigil, refusing to cancel it,  and the date of the event point to the city’s liability.





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