Court rules Tamburini violated free speech rights

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U.S. District Court Judge Mary McElroy ruled Tuesday that then-Johnston Police Chief Richard Tamburini violated the free speech rights of retired Johnston Detective James Brady after he was disciplined following an incident in July 2015.

Brady, the IBPO president at the time, was disciplined by Tamburini after he spoke with the Providence Journal regarding the suspension of then-patrolman Adam Catamero for “conduct unbecoming an officer” following a traffic stop that summer. Catamero was suspended two days, but he was later fired for “continuing ‘problems.’”

Brady spoke with Journal reporter Jacqueline Tempera while the matter was pending in District Court. The ACLU press release notes that Brady was speaking in his capacity as IBPO president, as he “revealed what he believed to be improper conduct” and “favoritism in issuing parking tickets.”

About a week after the story was published, Tamburini started proceedings to punish Brady for violating the department statutes regarding conduct unbecoming and public information/media relations/persons authorized to disseminate information. Brady was later suspended two days without pay, but McElroy repeatedly said that decision was unconstitutional.

“The imposition of discipline under the Internal Investigations Policy violated Detective Brady’s First Amendment free speech rights,” McElroy wrote in her 26-page decision. “As the Court has determined that Detective Brady’s comments to Ms. Tempera regarding the circumstances surrounding Officer Catamero’s firing were protected speech, the investigation (and subsequent punishment) for those comments was unconstitutional. It follows, then, that Detective Brady’s statements to Ms. Tempera about this constitutional violation were a matter of public concern and the interest in providing this information to the public outweighed the JPD’s interest.”

McElroy ruled that Tamburini’s efforts were “an unconstitutional effort to stifle protected speech that any reasonable superior officer should have understood violated First Amendment rights.”

McElroy added in her decision that the public information/media relations policy is “an impermissible prior restraint on speech” and that the conduct unbecoming and dissemination of information statutes were “unconstitutionally applied” to Brady. She also noted that Tamburini was not “entitled to qualified immunity in this context.”

“In contrast, Detective Brady did not disclose confidential information or interfere with an ongoing investigation,” McElroy writes. “Chief Tamburini observed that Detective Brady made comments about potential corruption in the police department and for that punished him.”

“I’ve always said, I was just doing my job as union president,” Brady said in response to the decision via an ACLU press release. “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.”

The release notes that the court will now consider a monetary award for Brady as a result of the case.

“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,” ACLU cooperating attorney Elizabeth Weins said via the release. “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.”

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