Hospital worker fired over coffee cup in film loses claim

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A former nurse in Mississippi fired because her Magnolia Hospital coffee cup appeared in a local independent film featuring themes of sadomachism and violence has no First Amendment claim, a federal judge recently ruled.

The unusual case involved a long-time employee of the community hospital owned by the city of Corinth and Alcorn County.

Tonya Freeman worked at Magnolia Hospital for 10 years until she made the mistake of inviting her nursing manager to the premier of the film, “Tragic Flaw,” in which Freeman starred. The fictional film concerned two lesbians’ attempts to hire a hit man to kill an abusive doctor who was married to one of the female characters.

The nursing manager noticed that a coffee cup belonging to Freeman and bearing the hospital’s name was featured prominently in a “murder for hire” scene. After the nursing manager relayed her concerns to the hospital’s chief executive officer, Freeman was fired.

Freeman sued in federal court in June 2007, alleging a violation of her First Amendment and due-process rights. She also filed a state claim for violation of personnel policy as stated in the employee handbook. On Nov. 19, 2008, Senior U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Mississippi Glen H. Davidson rejected Freeman’s claims in Freeman v. Magnolia Regional Health Center.

Freeman contended that her First Amendment rights were violated because she was terminated for her expression in having her coffee cup appear in a film that addressed the topic of domestic violence, a subject of immense public concern.

The hospital and individual defendants (including the hospital’s chief executive officer) admitted that they fired Freeman for her speech — namely, the film image of the cup. However, they argued that the plaintiff’s claim must fail because she did not engage in speech in a manner designed to highlight domestic violence as a matter of public concern — a necessary requirement for any public employee asserting a free-speech violation.

Judge Davidson agreed with the defendants in his analysis that Freeman failed to show how she spoke in a way that framed a public concern. “The Court has reviewed the film and is of the opinion that though domestic violence, through sadomasochism, is present in the film, it is by no means depicted in a light that is of public concern,” Davidson wrote. “The overall theme is not of domestic abuse and the court finds that Plaintiff's claim that the theme of ‘Tragic Fall’ is of public concern to be totally unfounded.”

Davidson also reasoned that “even if the movie was one of public concern, the mug was not necessary to further that message.”

Moreover, even if Freeman somehow could show that including the mug amounted to treating a matter of public concern, Davidson said her First Amendment claim would fail for another reason — that the hospital had a valid reason for disassociating itself from the film.

“The medical overtones along with the connections associated with Magnolia could easily suggest to a viewer that Magnolia supported, sponsored, contributed to or was in some way involved with ‘Tragic Flaw,’ a film containing sexual conduct, sadomasochism, murder, illegal drug use and wrought with extreme vulgar language.”

The judge also rejected Freeman’s due-process and state employee-handbook claims.

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