In an important decision for the free speech rights of public employees, U.S. District Judge Mary McElroy ruled today that then-Johnston Police Chief Richard Tamburini violated the First Amendment rights of retired Detective James Brady when he was disciplined for speaking in his role as union president to a Providence Journal reporter on a matter of public concern. In her 26-page ruling in the case that had been filed by ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorneys back in 2017, the court found Tamburini’s actions to be “an unconstitutional effort to stifle protected speech that any reasonable superior officer should have understood violated First Amendment rights.”
In September of 2016, Brady, an 18-year veteran of the force, spoke to the Providence Journal about police officer Adam Catamero, who had been terminated from the Department. Brady indicated he was speaking in his role as union president of Local #307 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. The article sought to shed light on the circumstances of Catamero’s termination, and suggested that, although he was ostensibly fired for behavioral reasons, police department politics might have been at play. The court noted that Brady’s statements – in which he “revealed what he believed to be improper conduct” in the Department, including “favoritism in issuing parking tickets” and inappropriately processing more tickets through municipal court than the state traffic tribunal – “surely [addressed] a matter of public concern” protected by the First Amendment.
Several days after the Journal ran the article, Chief Tamburini launched an internal affairs investigation and charged Brady with violating multiple department policies regarding “dissemination of information” and “conduct unbecoming an officer.” Brady was further advised that he brought the “Department into disrepute” and impaired “operation and efficiency of the Department.” He was given a two-day unpaid suspension.
The suit, handled by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Elizabeth Wiens and John Dineen, sought a court order invalidating, as a violation of the First Amendment, the policies under which Brady was disciplined. Judge McElroy agreed that one of the policies was facially unconstitutional as an “impermissible restraint on speech,” and the others were unconstitutional as applied to Brady’s protected speech.
Plaintiff Brady said today: “I’ve always said, I was just doing my job as union president. I had a thirty-eight-year career as a police officer with an untarnished reputation when I was investigated and disciplined by the Town for representing my member. I am happy to know that the unlawful suspension will be removed from my record because I did nothing wrong.”
ACLU cooperating attorney Wiens added: “The Town should have known better than to discipline a union president for speaking out on a matter of public concern on behalf of a union member. This decision should also serve as a reminder to municipalities that overbroad policies that deter employees from speaking out on health and safety violations, misconduct, corruption and other matters of public concern not only harm society, they’re unconstitutional.”
The next step in the case will be consideration of an award of monetary damages for the violation of Brady’s constitutional rights.