First Amendment Lawsuit | Social Media

City Paying Ex-Police Officer to Settle Free Speech Lawsuit Over Social Media Posts

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Social media icons on keyboard. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

By The Associated Press

SPARKS, Nev. (AP) — The city of Sparks has agreed to a $525,000 settlement with a former police officer who filed a lawsuit in 2021 accusing the city of violating his free speech rights by suspending him for contentious comments he posted on his private social media account.

George Forbush, a 20-year veteran of the Sparks police force, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Reno seeking $1 million in damages after he was suspended four days for what that the city said constituted threats to Black Lives Matters activists and others.

A federal judge denied the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit in 2022 and last September the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected its attempt to force the dispute into arbitration.

On Monday, the Sparks City Council unanimously approved the $525,000 payment to settle the First Amendment lawsuit along with a lifetime health insurance stipend, the Reno Gazette Journal reported.

The city launched a disciplinary investigation based on an anonymous complaint from a citizen regarding more than 700 comments Forbush posted on his private account with Twitter, now called X, in 2020.

The city cited four in its formal suspension. They included comments Forbush made about tossing gasoline toward protesters seen in a video trying to burn a fire-resistant American flag and his plan to “build a couple AR pistols just for BLM, Antifa or active shooters who cross my path and can’t maintain social distancing.”

His subsequent lawsuit filed in 2021 said the city’s disciplinary investigation had confirmed all of Forbush’s posts were made on his own time, as a private citizen and that “nowhere in the posts or on his Twitter feed did he identify himself as a Sparks police officer,” the lawsuit says.

“A public employer may not discipline or retaliate against its employees for the content of their political speech as private citizens on matters of public concern,” the lawsuit says. “Officer Forbush did not relinquish his right to think, care, and speak about politics and current events when he accepted a job as a police officer.”

Forbush, a former sheriff’s deputy in rural Humboldt County, told the Gazette Journal he hopes the city learns from its mistakes.

“Some people in city leadership had knee-jerk reactions and made some bad decisions. And I’m just concerned that if this can happen to me, it can happen to someone else down the road,” he said.

The city had no comment on the settlement beyond a statement on its website that says the city’s insurer would cover the $525,000 while the city would pay directly for the post-retirement health insurance stipend.

“We don’t comment on personnel or litigation issues,” Sparks spokeswoman Julie Duewel wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday.