Kirkland v. City of Maryville, 2022 WL 17413720 (6th Cir. 2022)
Shaina Kirkland had an up-and-down performance history as a Maryville police officer. She joined the police department after leaving the local sheriff’s office following an undisclosed “incident” and an unsuccessful appeal to the sheriff. As a municipal officer, she received “verbal counseling and remedial training” for an improper warrant application. And she was twice reprimanded when citizens complained about her “rude and unprofessional” behavior during traffic stops.
Eventually, Kirkland became a field training officer for a time. She complained to new officer that she had been passed over for traffic unit assignments in favor of male officers. Kirkland was not qualified to the traffic unit because she lacked a motorcycle endorsement on her driver license. She also criticized the shoes officers must wear as well as the field training program for new officers.
Kirkland also had issues with her former employer, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office. Kirkland made two Facebook posts criticizing the sheriff during his re-election campaign. One belittled his public speaking abilities; the other referred to his supporters as “brainwashed minions.” A citizen questioned whether an officer who publicly criticizes the sheriff and his deputies could work effectively alongside them. Maryville Police Department supervisors issued a reprimand to Kirkland. She was told she could post “supporting views” of political candidates but was cautioned against posting “negative comments,” as the department must “maintain working relationships with other agencies and departments to provide services to the public.”
A citizen questioned whether an officer who publicly criticizes the sheriff and his deputies could work effectively alongside them.
A short time after the Facebook posts, Kirkland attended mandatory training at the sheriff’s office, where she participated in a “high stress” driving and simulated gunfight exercise. Kirkland nearly ran over a sheriff’s deputy. Complicating matters, she later refused to shake a sheriff’s office investigator’s proffered hand. The sheriff told the Maryville Police Department chief that Kirkland was banned from further sheriff’s office training events due to her “blatant disrespect for our training instructors and deputies” and her “unsafe” conduct. An investigation ensued and Kirkland was suspended for three days for “childish” behavior.
Not long after, Kirkland posted another negative article about the sheriff on Facebook. That led to a hearing and termination of Kirkland’s police employment. Kirkland sued, claiming her termination violated the First Amendment and that suspension without pay and her termination were unlawful retaliation for complaints of sex discrimination.
To win her First Amendment claim, Kirkland had the burden of showing that: (1) she engaged in constitutionally protected speech; (2) she suffered an adverse action likely to chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in protected speech; and (3) the protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse action. Although police officers have the right to speak on matters of public concern, that right is balanced against the need to ensure “efficient provision of public services,” as government entities “need a significant degree of control over their employees’ words and actions” (Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006)).
To assess whether a public employee’s speech is constitutionally protected, courts consider whether the officer was speaking as a private citizen and not pursuant to official duties, the subject of the speech was on a matter of public concern, and the officer’s speech interest outweighs the government employer’s interest in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.
The court held Kirkland’s speech on Facebook was made in her role as a private citizen. The court cited the heightened need for order, loyalty and efficiency in law enforcement. The city has “legitimate and powerful interests” as a law enforcement agency in preserving its working relationship with the sheriff’s office, and there was “ample evidence that Kirkland’s Facebook posts risked undermining this relationship.” The city provided evidence that “Kirkland’s behavior had inspired backlash from the Sheriff’s Office deputies and caused resentment between the agencies.”
The court noted further, “It was reasonable for the City to predict that Kirkland’s final Facebook post—the latest escalation in a persistent dispute between her and the Sheriff’s Office—would further disrupt the Department’s working relationship with the Sheriff’s Office.” The department’s strong interest in maintaining that working relationship, “especially when those officers may have to rely on one another in life-threatening circumstances,” outweighed Kirkland’s speech rights and justified her termination.