Federal appeals court upholds firing of fire marshal for profane language

Tuesday, December 21, 1999

Edmond, Okla., city officials did not violate the First Amendment rights of a public employee who directed profane language at a co-worker, a federal appeals court has ruled.

City officials fired Ron Williamson from his position of fire marshal after he called a co-worker a “communist c—s—–.” Williamson, who had worked in the fire department for more than 20 years, made the derogatory remark after the co-worker told him about the latest union contract and observed that he, a lower-ranking fire official, now made as much money as Williamson.

Williamson had voiced objections to the union in the past.

After his termination, Williamson sued in federal court, contending that his profane remark was protected by the First Amendment because he was speaking on a matter of public concern.

However, a federal district court dismissed Williamson's suit, finding that his speech was only a matter of private concern, i.e., how much money he made.

Whether speech is a matter of public or private concern is important in a case such as this, because public employees' speech is protected by the First Amendment only if it pertains to a matter of public concern.

On appeal in Williamson v. City of Edmond, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's ruling, finding that Williamson's speech had concerned a private matter.

Williamson had argued that his speech was a matter of public importance because it was “on the subject of union matters.”

“While matters involving labor unions may be of some public interest, to be protected, speech must do more than just generally relate to a matter of public interest,” the 10th Circuit wrote in its Dec. 16 opinion. The speech “must also be sufficiently informative to be useful to the public in evaluating government conduct.”

The 10th Circuit determined that Williamson's comments “illustrate[d] only his personal dissatisfaction with the union contract and union members” and related “only to internal operations of the fire department.”

Richard Goralewicz, the attorney who represented the city, said: “The ruling did not break any new legal ground but reaffirmed a rule of reason in what are the limits of reasonable workplace tolerance for offensive speech.”

Calls placed to Williamson's attorney were not returned.