RENO, Nev. — A police officer in Sparks, Nevada, who is accusing the city of violating his free speech rights is seeking $1 million in damages after he was suspended for four days for making comments on his private social media account that the city says constituted threats to Black Lives Matters activists and others.
The City Council voted Monday to hire independent counsel to defend Sparks against the federal lawsuit filed last month by George Forbush, a bomb squad technician who has served 19 years on the force.
It alleges the city violated his First Amendment rights when it punished him “because of his particular viewpoint of his political opinions as expressed on his personal social media.”
The four Twitter posts cited last summer included his comments about tossing gasoline toward protesters seen in a video trying to burn a fire-resistant American flag and his plan to “build a couple AR pistols just for BLM, Antifa or active shooters who cross my path and can’t maintain social distancing.”
The city’s disciplinary investigation, which launched after an anonymous complaint, confirmed all Forbush’s posts were made on his own time, as a private citizen and that “nowhere in the posts or on his Twitter feed did he identify himself as a Sparks police officer,” the lawsuit said.
“A public employer may not discipline or retaliate against its employees for the content of their political speech as private citizens on matters of public concern,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Reno.
“Officer Forbush did not relinquish his right to think, care, and speak about politics and current events when he accepted a job as a police officer,” it said.
A former deputy sheriff in rural Humboldt County, Forbush is highly trained in bomb disposal and also supervises Sparks police vehicle fleet and surplus military equipment.
After reviewing more than 700 of his Twitter posts, the city suspended Forbush over four of the posts, including one that criticized an officer convicted of planting evidence.
He said it “would be ironic if someone planted drugs by cramming them” into a body cavity “so they could be found during an intake search when he goes to prison for what he did.”
City officials and police didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the city to purge Forbush’s personnel file of all disciplinary actions based on the unconstitutional punishment of protected speech and “implement a policy governing officers’ personal social media use that is consistent with the Constitution.”
“The city does not have a clear, consistent, and Constitutional policy regarding officers’ personal social media use,” the lawsuit said. “The current climate of uncertainty, and arbitrary enforcement targeting political viewpoints, chills the exercise of the constitutional rights of speech and political participation of all city personnel.”
The city policy says, “Employees and elected officials should not post discriminatory remarks, harassing statements, and threats of violence or any language that can be viewed as malicious, obscene, threatening or intimidating toward fellow employees, citizens, or vendors.”
The lawsuit said it makes no distinction between speech that could reasonably be expected to disrupt the department’s operations, and speech that would not.
“Forbush’s case is a warning broadcast to all city employees that they had better not say anything, anywhere, in any forum, even in their personal social media discussions of matters of public concern,” it said.