Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Court rules in favor of Oregon police officer prevented from commenting on racial profiling – September 2018

Springfield, OR

In February 2015, Thelma Barone, then multicultural liaison for the police department of Springfield, OR, made a public comment about racial profiling within the police force. The department suspended Barone before offering her a “last-chance agreement,” whereby she could return to the force if she promised not to say anything negative about the police or the city in writing or speech. Barone refused this offer, and a subsequent one, and, as a consequence, was fired. She then filed a federal lawsuit, contending that she had been the victim of retaliation for speaking out, but lost in the trial court and appealed that decision. In September 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the restrictions against Barone had violated her Free Speech and sent the case back to a federal judge in Eugene, OR .

Key Players

Thelma Barone was the multicultural liaison for the Springfield Police Department for 13 years; as such, she served as the primary bridge between the police and Springfield’s Latino community. She worked to establish relationships between the police department and communities of color. Following public remarks about the police force and subsequent controversy, she was terminated from her position in August 2015.

The Springfield Police Department serves a city of about 60,000 people just outside Eugene, OR. The current Chief of Police is Richard Lewis. In 2015, at the time of the incident, the Chief of Police was Tim Doney.

Further Details

In February 2015, Thelma Barone was a scheduled speaker for an event at the local Springfield City Club. The event’s focus was on police brutality and racial profiling, a salient topic given the anti-police-brutality protests taking place at the time in Ferguson, MO. Barone was asked whether she had heard of increased racial profiling by the police in the Springfield community, and she answered in the affirmative.

A week later, Police Chief Tim Doney placed Barone on administrative leave for the seemingly unrelated reason of “alleged untruthfulness during investigations in previous cases.” An internal investigation determined that she had violated parts of the department’s code of conduct by allowing teenagers to photograph restricted areas during a tour. According to Barone, in July 2015 officials in both the police department and the police union ordered that she sign a “last-chance agreement.” If she refused, she would be fired.

The agreement stipulated that she would not publicly say anything disparaging about Springfield or its police department. Further, it detailed that she would no longer serve as the liaison with the local Latino community. After Barone refused to sign this document, the officials returned with an amended version that would have allowed her to report on and track racial profiling or racial discrimination complaints, but kept her gag order in place.

But Barone rejected that offer as well, and was fired on August 12, 2015, as a result. Without income, Barone ultimately lost her house. Now 61, she says it would be too difficult to return to the force. Instead, she is pursuing a master’s degree in social work. Following her termination in mid-2015, she filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Springfield and its police department for allegedly firing her on false pretenses and retaliating against her for speaking publicly against the department.

 

Outcome

Appeals court rules in favor of Barone

In September 2018, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Barone, overturning a previous ruling against her. The court clarified that although her comments at the public meeting in February 2018 were not protected speech under the First Amendment, the “last-chance agreement” restricted her speech as a private citizen, and therefore was unconstitutional.

External References

Attempt to silence Oregon police officer violated First Amendment, court says, The Oregonian

Court: Attempt to silence officer violated First Amendment, The Associated Press

Thelma Barone v. City of Springfield, Public Document

Free Speech Prevails: Former Springfield police aide wins First Amendment case against Springfield, Eugene Weekly

Federal appeals court reverses decision about fired Springfield police employee, The Bulletin

Prepared by Emma Vahey ‘20

Uploaded to tracker: 10/29/2018