ACLU of Rhode Island Favorably Settles Free Speech Lawsuit Against Johnston Police Department
Following up a court ruling she issued in February, finding that the Johnston Police Department violated the First Amendment rights of retired Detective James Brady when he was disciplined for speaking in his role as union president to a Providence Journal reporter on a matter of public concern, U.S. District Judge Mary McElroy today signed a consent judgment settling the case. Under the consent judgment, the defendants have agreed to, among other things, revoke a departmental policy that the court found to infringe on Brady’s free speech rights, revoke the discipline that was imposed on Brady and remove it from his records, compensate him for the unlawful two-day suspension he received, and pay over $57,000 in attorneys’ fees.
The suit, handled by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Elizabeth Wiens and John Dineen, sought a court order invalidating, as a violation of the First Amendment, the policies under which Brady was disciplined. In her February ruling, the Judge found the department’s actions against Brady to be “an unconstitutional effort to stifle protected speech that any reasonable superior officer should have understood violated First Amendment rights.”
In September of 2016, Brady, an 18-year veteran of the force, spoke to the Providence Journal about police officer Adam Catamero, who had been terminated from the Department. Brady indicated he was speaking in his role as union president of Local #307 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. The article sought to shed light on the circumstances of Catamero’s termination, and suggested that, although he was ostensibly fired for behavioral reasons, police department politics might have been at play. The court noted that Brady’s statements – in which he “revealed what he believed to be improper conduct” in the Department, including “favoritism in issuing parking tickets” and inappropriately processing more tickets through municipal court than the state traffic tribunal – “surely [addressed] a matter of public concern” protected by the First Amendment.
Several days after the Journal ran the article, then-Police Chief Richard Tamburini charged Brady with violating department policies regarding “dissemination of information” and “conduct unbecoming an officer.” Brady was further advised that he brought the “Department into disrepute” and impaired “operation and efficiency of the Department.” He was given a two-day unpaid suspension.
Judge McElroy agreed that one of the policies under which Brady was disciplined was facially unconstitutional as an “impermissible restraint on speech,” and the others were unconstitutional as applied to his protected speech.
Averting a trial in the case, the consent judgment entered today formalizes those determinations and addresses the other remedies the lawsuit sought.
“The outcome in this case sends a clear message to officials that sanctioning employees for speaking out on matters of public concern is an abuse of government power and a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” said Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director.
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