Ex-firefighter whose news release criticized boss loses retaliation suit

Friday, May 12, 2000

A former Madison, Wis., firefighter, fired after issuing a news release
accusing his boss of conspiracy and corruption, has lost his First Amendment
claim before a federal appeals court panel.

Ronnie Greer, who had a lengthy history of disputes with his superiors, was
discharged in 1997 after he sent out a news release entitled “Homosexual Chief
Rewards Homosexual Chief for Assault.”

Greer was upset because he believed that fire chief Debra Amesqua had showed
favoritism to fire training chief Marcia Holt by not firing Holt for shoving a
firefighter recruit.

An avowed anti-gay activist, Greer believed Amesqua and Holt were lesbians.
His news release stated: “Both are homosexual women, who have been seen in the
past (and still now among many), with clear agendas as it concerns (sic) women
in the fire service. Could it be that their radical agendas has (sic) come to
play to the extent that even violence can be … rewarded?”

Amesqua charged Greer with violating departmental rules prohibiting
insubordination, with harassment and with bringing the department into

In July 1998, the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners of the City of
Madison found just cause for Greer’s termination.

In August 1998, Greer sued Amesqua, the fire department and the city in
federal court, contending his civil rights had been violated. Among other
claims, he alleged that the chief had retaliated against him because he had
criticized her in his news release.

In June 1999, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb granted summary judgment to
the city defendants on all claims, including the First Amendment retaliation
claim. Crabb determined the city’s interest in an efficient workplace outweighed
Greer’s free-speech rights.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
agreed in Greer v. Amesqua.

The panel noted that public employees, in order to recover under a First
Amendment claim, must show that their speech is on a matter of public concern
and that their free-speech interests outweigh the employer’s efficiency

The panel determined that Greer’s speech was on a matter of public concern.
“Whether public officials are operating the government ethically and legally is
a quintessential issue of public concern,” the unanimous panel ruled in its May
9 opinion.

However, the panel determined that Greer’s free-speech interests did not
outweigh the city’s interest in an efficient workplace free of disruption.

The panel noted that “Greer fired off his news release to local media,
causing considerable public embarrassment to the Department.”

Rather than going through proper channels, the panel wrote, “Greer instead
circulated his naked accusations to mass media outlets for broad public
consumption and intended to indict the integrity of the Department’s leadership

The panel said that Greer argued he could not be punished because his
comments were truthful. However, the panel wrote, “we have never held that an
employer must prove the falsehood of the employee’s statement before
disciplining the employee based on that speech.”

Michael Dean, Greer’s attorney, criticized the panel’s decision. “The facts
in the panel’s opinion were grossly one-sided,” he said. “If employee speech
concerns favoritism by a high-profile public official, that speech is a matter
of serious public concern.

“If the employee’s speech blowing the whistle on that favoritism is true or
has a reasonable basis in truth, then the interests of the employee and the
public in that speech should be accorded significant weight in the court’s
balancing of interests,” he said.

Dean said he would seek full panel review of the decision.

Calls to the Madison city attorney’s office were not