Arguing that the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect controversial speech, the Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of a firefighter who was fired for criticizing vandalism of public monuments.
“Tolerance cuts both ways. It isn’t always an easy pill to swallow, but that’s the way free speech is supposed to work, especially when it comes to tolerating speech that we may disagree with,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, the president of the Rutherford Institute.
“Remember, the First Amendment is a steam valve. It allows people to speak their minds, air their grievances and contribute to a larger dialogue that hopefully results in a more just world,” he said. “Silencing unpopular viewpoints by shouting them down, censoring them, or criminalizing them is like removing the steam valve. Without it, frustration builds, anger grows and people become more volatile.”
The organization has filed a complaint on behalf of Jon Reinmuth against Henrico County, Virginia, and a number of its officials, including Fire Chief Alec Oughton.
Rutherford noted that in May 2020, demonstrations and unrest broke out nationwide in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Demonstrators in Richmond, Virginia, focused their outrage on several statues erected on Monument Avenue, including the Robert E. Lee monument.
The Lee monument was defaced with spray paint and covered with phrases tha invoked social justice included profanities that called for violence against the police, the institute said.
The next month, a local broadcaster published a photo that went viral of two young black females celebrating on the vandalized Lee monument that ended up on the Henrico County Public Schools Facebook page. One of the girls was a student.
While some praised the photo, others were critical of the message it conveyed and HCPS’s decision to post it. Reinmuth, an 18-year veteran of the county fire department, joined the critics of the decision to post the photo on HCPS’ Facebook page.
“While off-duty, Reinmuth commented ‘Disgraceful’ and added, ‘Will they be posing with their new TVs as well?’, an allusion to Reinmuth’s belief that the photograph appeared to be advocating for unlawful activity associated with the riots such as vandalism and looting,” the institute said.
Reinmuth’s supervisors immediately fired him.
In the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Virginia, Rutherford contends Reinmuth had a right as a citizen to express his opinion on the photo and its posting by a school district because it related to a matter of debate in the community.
In fact, the allegation is simply that he was fired for speech that was protected by the First Amendment.
Other defendants are Deputy Chief Tom LaBelle, Battalion Chief John Walls and County Manager John Vithoulkas.
The comments “were an act of free speech on a matter of public concern protected by the First Amendment,” the complaint contends.
The defendants, therefore, “are liable because the decision to terminate plaintiff was reviewed, sanctioned, ratified, upheld, and therefore ultimately made through the decisions of a person or persons with final policymaking authority for personnel issues.”
The complaint said, “In making his comments, plaintiff was participating in a debate among citizens about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the photograph of young people dancing on a vandalized monument.”
It seeks an order that the firefighter be rehired and be awarded lost wages, and compensatory and punitive damages.
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