A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit March 13 filed by a member of the Tallahassee Citizens Police Review Board, (CPRB), who was voted off the board for bringing a cup with an “abolish police” sticker to board meetings.
Taylor Biro, a former member of the CPRB, sued the city Dec. 13 for violating her First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Biro was ousted from the board Dec. 7 in a 3-2 vote of the Tallahassee Board of Commissioners who believed the sticker was in opposition to the board’s mission, which is to act as an “unbiased panel” with the purpose of “foster[ing] transparency, enhanc[ing] communication, and ensur[ing] a relationship of trust and respect between the Tallahassee Police Department and the community.”
U.S. District Judge Allen C. Winsor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida found that Biro did not “plausibly allege a First Amendment retaliation claim.”
Judge Winsor’s decision relied heavily on the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Pickering v. Board of Education, in which a four-part test was established to determine how a public employee’s right to speak on a matter of public concern is balanced against the school district’s interest in the efficient operation of the schools.
The City of Tallahassee agreed with Biro in its filings that her “abolish police” message was a matter of public concern, and that it was the reason for her removal from the CRPB. “So the issue,” Judge Winsor stated, “is whether Biro has alleged facts plausibly supporting a conclusion that the balancing of interests would favor her. I conclude she has not.”
In January 2021 Biro was appointed to the CPRB, whose members are selected by the city commission and are unpaid. According to the Tallahassee City Commission Policy, “All City appointed citizens serving on committees may be removed from their committee by the City Commission if it is believed it would be in the best interest of the City of Tallahassee.”
In the city’s motion to dismiss, it argued that the Pickering test did not apply since Biro is an unpaid appointed member of the CPRB. But Judge Winsor stated this “makes no difference.”
“The government has no more right to remove an unpaid volunteer for her speech than a paid employee,” he wrote.
Tallahassee also argued that Biro’s “anti-police bias … does not simply impede or diminish the Board’s ability to perform its core duty—it destroys it completely.”
Based on the mission of the CPRB, Judge Winsor wrote, “It should go without saying that having a Review Board member espouse an ‘abolish police’ message could undermine that goal. At the very least, the City has wide discretion in determining whether Biro’s speech undermined its mission—and what to do about it.”
According to the filing, Biro stated at a hearing that she had more facts to defend her First Amendment claim. Judge Winsor said it “appears unlikely she can succeed in stating a plausible claim, but she will nonetheless have an opportunity to try.” Biro has until March 27 to file an amended complaint.