SPRINGFIELD — A federal appeals court has ruled that the firing a Springfield Police Department officer for not signing an agreement forbidding her from speaking out against the department or other city agencies was a violation of her First Amendment rights.
Former Springfield police community services officer Thelma Barone was fired in 2015 after refusing to sign a “last chance agreement,” which included a clause preventing her from “speaking or writing anything of a disparaging or negative manner” about the police department, the city or its employees. After Barone’s employment was terminated, she filed a federal lawsuit accusing the department of violating her free speech and retaliating against her. The U.S. District Court in Eugene ruled in the city’s favor last year.
However, the court declined to find retaliation by the city.
Last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a portion of the District Court’s decision, finding the city’s “last chance agreement” was prior restraint that violated Barone’s free speech rights. The appeals court sent the case back to District Court to determine whether the city is liable for the police chief’s decision to require Barone to sign the agreement. However, the court declined to find the city retaliated against her.
“Government employees don’t give up their constitutional rights when they accept public employment,” said attorney Andrew Lewinter, who represented Barone. “Particularly in these times, it is critical to remember that the First Amendment is not self-enforcing. We all have to respect it and protect it. Had Ms. Barone signed that agreement, she would have jeopardized her job just by engaging in our democracy. That is unacceptable in this country, and I am very pleased that the 9th Circuit agrees.”
Lewinter called the reversal a win.
When contacted Thursday, Springfield police spokesman Scott McKee referred comment to the city.
City spokeswoman Amanda Fossen said because the case is pending and will return to district court, the city could not comment at this time.
Barone was asked to sign the agreement after a Feb. 5, 2015, event at the City Club of Springfield, according to a press release issued this week.
At the event, an audience member asked Barone if she had heard complaints about racial profiling from community members. Barone responded that she had. Barone, who is of Mexican descent, served as the multicultural liaison for the police department, particularly within the Latino community.
As a result of her comments, Barone said she was given the opportunity to sign the “last chance agreement,” which she refused.
At the time Barone filed the lawsuit, city spokesman Niel Laudati denied that was the reason.
“While the city cannot legally discuss Ms. Barone’s discipline while she was an employee at the city of Springfield, the city fully denies that Ms. Barone was released from her employment because of comments made during a Feb. 5, 2015, presentation at the Springfield City Club,” Laudati said in 2015. “In fact, during that presentation Chief Tim Doney introduced her to the group at Ms. Barone’s request and even assisted her with answering questions, including one regarding racial profiling.”
Barone is happy with the appeals court’s decision.
“As an immigrant, I have a particular appreciation for my freedom to speak, criticize the government and take part in our democracy,” Barone said in a press release. “The city of Springfield wanted to take that freedom from me, and fired me when I wouldn’t give it up. This decision reaffirms the importance of the First Amendment. It is a win for all Americans.