The Town of Johnston and its police department have settled a freedom of speech lawsuit filed by a former officer.
Following up on her previous court ruling, which found the Johnston Police Department violated now retired Detective James Brady’s First Amendment rights, U.S. District Judge Mary McElroy has signed off on a consent judgment settling the case.
The settlement terms include, among other things, revocation of a departmental policy and the discipline imposed on Brady, removal of the incident from his police employment records, compensation for the unlawful two-day suspension he received, and more than $57,000 in attorneys’ fees, according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.
The judge ruled in February that then-Johnston Police Chief Richard Tamburini violated Brady’s free speech rights after he was disciplined following an incident in July 2015, when he spoke to the press as a union official.
Tamburini disciplined Brady, the International Brotherhood of Police (IBPO) Local 307 Union president at the time, after he spoke with a Providence Journal reporter regarding the suspension of then-patrolman Adam Catamero.
Catamero faced a two-day suspension for “conduct unbecoming an officer” following a traffic stop that summer, and was later fired for “continuing problems.”
Brady spoke with a Providence Journal reporter while the matter was pending in District Court.
Speaking in his capacity as an IBPO representative, he “revealed what he believed to be improper conduct” and “favoritism in issuing parking tickets.”
Soon after the story was published, Tamburini started proceedings to punish Brady for violating the department statutes regarding conduct unbecoming and public information dissemination. Brady was later suspended for two days without pay.
McElroy ruled the disciplinary action was unconstitutional.
ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Elizabeth Wiens and John Dineen represented Brady in court. They sought a court order invalidating the policies under which he was disciplined, as a violation of the First Amendment.
In her February ruling, the Judge found the department’s actions against Brady to be “an unconstitutional effort to stifle protected speech that any reasonable superior officer should have understood violated First Amendment rights,” according to court records.
“The outcome in this case sends a clear message to officials that sanctioning employees for speaking out on matters of public concern is an abuse of government power and a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” said Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the ruling, protected Brady’s comments as a union official.
McElroy noted that Tamburini’s disciplinary actions were “an unconstitutional effort to stifle protected speech that any reasonable superior officer should have understood violated First Amendment rights.”
“In contrast, Detective Brady did not disclose confidential information or interfere with an ongoing investigation,” McElroy wrote in her February ruling. “Chief Tamburini observed that Detective Brady made comments about potential corruption in the police department and for that punished him.”
The ACLU took up Brady’s cause in an effort to protect free speech.
“I’ve always said, I was just doing my job as union president,” Brady said in February. “I had a 38-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 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,” Weins said in February. “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.”
Current Johnston Police Chief Joseph Razza declined comment on the court’s decision and department policy going forward.