A Third District Court judge has affirmed an arbitrator’s finding that Rice County was justified in demoting a deputy for comments he made while off duty.
In an Oct. 4 opinion, Judge Carol Hanks found that the arbitrator’s decision regarding Thomas McBroom’s demotion was “supported by substantial evidence” and that McBroom himself admitted to several policy violations.
McBroom was demoted in February 2018 for violating Rice County Sheriff’s Office policy, including posting tweets about a settlement paid to Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, the man shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer in July 2016, as well as lying to a City Pages reporter and posting photos of himself in uniform to social media.
In November 2017, McBroom tweeted that Reynolds needs to “come off county and state aid now that she has some cash. It’ll probably be gone in six months on crack cocaine.” Later that day, in response to a question about his stance, McBroom said was of that opinion because of “history.” Reynolds has no criminal history of drug use, though there are videos of her smoking marijuana.
The now-deleted tweets were first reported by City Pages. A reporter at the publication contacted McBroom, who initially denied he was a law enforcement officer. He later admitted authoring the posts, but only to “screw” with the reporter. He also denied that his comments had anything to do with race. Reynolds is black.
Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn testified that he felt the demotion was warranted due of the number of policy violations McBroom committed along with the damage done to the reputation of the Sheriff’s Office. In the days following McBroom’s tweets, Dunn and Chief Deputy Jesse Thomas, spent a good deal of time responding to phone calls, Facebook messages and emails from people angry about McBroom’s comments.
“These comments do not reflect the beliefs or opinions of the Rice County Sheriff’s Office and Rice County Administration,” Dunn wrote in a Nov. 30, 2017 statement.
McBroom said that the punishment, which included a pay cut, was out of line given his clean record over 12 years with the Sheriff’s Office. He also argued that he shouldn’t be penalized for exercising his First Amendment rights.
Hanks noted that not all speech is protected and that the Sheriff’s Office has the right to restrict some speech of its employees.
“Appellant’s social media presence, and comments linked him to the Rice County Sheriffs Office in a negative manner, and, as previously noted, there was profound public outrage, directed at both appellant and the Rice County Sheriffs Office. The statements, as discussed above, were personally insulting and demeaning in nature, with no educational or social value. The Rice County Sheriff’s Office’s interest in promoting efficiency and public trust far outweighs appellant’s interests in commenting negatively on Ms. Reynolds’ settlement.”
McBroom, who was a member of the Elysian City Council at the time, said that his 2018 election as the city’s mayor showed that the public had little concern about his posts on Twitter.
“This court’s decision does not suggest appellant is not entitled to his own opinions and beliefs,” Hanks concluded. “However, the manner and context in which those opinions are communicated is not afforded unlimited protection by the First Amendment.”