Aycock moves Hardy case toward trial

ABERDEEN – Former Tupelo Police Capt. Cliff Hardy will get his day in court on claims he was pushed out after a speech about race bias in the department.
Friday, U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock denied the city of Tupelo’s motion to dismiss Hardy’s lawsuit. She heard oral arguments on the issue Wednesday.
A jury trial is set for July 20 in Aberdeen.
The lawsuit stems from an Oct. 12, 2006, community meeting to discuss race issues in Tupelo.
At that meeting, Hardy claimed his friend, Robert Hall, the former TPD deputy chief, had been “persecuted,” and Hardy suggested he believed Hall, who is black, was targeted for investigation, prosecution and demotion because of his race.
Hardy, who is white, retired from the department in March 2007, four months after he was removed as internal affairs investigator and moved to other assignments he considered menial jobs.
In a 19-page memorandum opinion, Aycock wrote, “A heavy burden awaits any party seeking to justify an adverse employment action allegedly caused by such a speech.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment retaliation because of public speech. The U.S. Supreme Court generally has held that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects an employee when his interests to comment on “matters of public concern” outweigh an employer’s interest in public service.
Wednesday, the city argued that Hardy’s speech was reckless, hurt department morale and embarrassed the department.
Aycock agreed that Hardy’s statement was insubordinate because it violated department policy against public pronouncements without proper authority.
But ultimately, she wrote, the city has not proven that its interests as an employer “outweigh the significant interest in potentially exposing official misconduct in the operation of a police department.”
And the city did not show Hardy would have been treated the same if he hadn’t made the speech, she said.

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal