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Public Employee Lawfully Fired for Racial Social Media Post

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, reversing a district court decision, ruled that a municipality lawfully fired a public employee for posting a racially derogatory post after the 2016 Presidential election.

Danyelle Bennet worked as an emergency telecommunicator for the city of Nashville. On the night of the November 2016 election, she posted a picture of the electoral map showing that Donald Trump won. In response, someone commented, using racially offensive language, that certain minorities did not vote for Trump. Bennet responded, using the same derogatory language, “Thank god we have more America loving rednecks. Red spread across all America. Even n------ and latinos voted for trump too!” In the post, Bennet identified herself as an emergency telecommunicator and an employee of the local police department. She deleted the post the following day. However, some of her co-workers read the post before Bennet took it down. Two employees complained about the post to the city, sending a screenshot of it to human resources. The city's human resources agreed that the post was racially offensive. Bennet defended the post, claiming she intended to be mocking and sarcastic. She did not believe her co-workers were actually offended. The city placed her on administrative leave pending further investigation, ultimately terminating her. She sued the city, alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

To pursue a claim for violation of the First Amendment, Bennet first must establish that she spoke on a matter of public concern. Bennet met that element because a presidential election qualified as a public concern. Next, the court balanced whether her interest in addressing matters of public concern outweighed the city’s right to promote public service efficiency through its employees. Key factors in the court’s determination were whether it (a) “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers”; (b) “has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary”; (c) “impedes the performance of the speaker’s duties or interferes with the regular operation of the enterprise”; or (d) “undermines the mission of the employer.” The Sixth Circuit concluded the balance weighed in the city’s favor for each of the elements. The other employees’ expressed offense at the post met the first factor. Emergency dispatchers must work in unity to protect public safety, thus the balance weighed for the city in the second factor as well. Bennet’s work performance could be negatively impacted because of the social media posts’ detrimental impact on her relationship with her co-workers. Discussions about the post lasted for several months. Lastly, the racial slurs detracted from the public service mission of the city’s emergency communications. The court ruled for the city on the First Amendment claim.