A former fire captain from St. Landry, La., fired for social media posts criticizing the board of commissioners, lost before a federal appeals court panel.
The panel ruled that his speech amounted to a personal grievance more than a matter of public concern. The decision shows that public employees often do not possess the First Amendment right to speak as freely as they would want on social media.
Larry Moreau Jr., a captain who had worked for the fire department for 27 years, was accused of not participating in a fire training exercise. At a pre-disciplinary hearing, he explained this was because he had an injury. The board of commissioners voted to reprimand Moreau with the chairman voting that Moreau should have been fired.
A few months later, Louisiana’s Vermillion Parish School Board had a teacher removed from a board meeting and taken to jail after she questioned a potential raise for the school superintendent.
This egregious action caused Moreau to post on Facebook:
All of this going on with this poor teacher being treated so unfairly makes one thing perfectly clear … These “boards” everywhere, ruled by good old boy politics, need to be dissolved ASAP! We have the exact same problem at our fire department. … A board of clueless idiots making the decisions that affect many, including the very employees who actually do the job… It’s a joke…
Candice Elkins, secretary to the board, responded to the post. Moreau deleted the post but then engaged in a back-and-forth with Elkins privately where he voiced further criticism of the board of commissioners. Elkins complained about Moreau’s comments. The board then sent Moreau notice that he would be investigated for making “disparaging” comments.
The board later unanimously voted to fire Moreau, who then filed a federal lawsuit on First Amendment grounds. A federal district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously affirmed the district court in its April 7, 2020 decision in Moreau v. St. Landry Parish Fire District No. 3.
The appeals court panel ruled against Moreau, because it determined that his Facebook posts constituted more of a personal grievance than a matter of public concern. The panel wrote that “his statement that his own employer’s board is made up of ‘clueless idiots’ is more akin to an internal grievance.”
“He made the Facebook post in the context of his private frustration with the board’s management and decision-making and a ‘personal problem’ he had with its chairman,” the panel wrote.
The panel concluded that “[o]n balance, Moreau’s speech was predominately of private concern.”
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).