Ex-Lee deputy presses speech rights to federal trial

gavelBy Patsy R. Brumfield
Daily Journal

ABERDEEN – A former Lee County deputy wants damages for his firing after speaking with news media about the New Year’s Eve 2011 arrest of a well known athlete.

Rodricus Carltez Hurst, the former deputy, sued Lee County and Sheriff Jim Johnson in 2013 claiming he was fired because of the content of what he told the news reporters about a New Year’s Eve bar fight.

Trial began Monday before U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock. Seven jurors were selected to hear the case.

It resumes this morning in the federal courthouse in downtown Aberdeen.

Hurst’s federal employment lawsuit insists that his firing violated his rights to free speech when on Jan. 1, 2012, he told Daily Journal sports reporter Brad Locke and others that Mississippi State University football player Chad Bumphis of

Tupelo was in jail after the fight, then was released on his own recognizance.

The sheriff’s department has a policy of employee termination for releasing information without authorization.

The jury of three men and four women was seated about 12:25 p.m. Two of its members are black. Hurst also is black.

Hurst seeks damages for his firing. Lee County’s attorneys insist Sheriff Jim Johnson had the authority to fire Hurst because he violated the agency’s policy.

Hurst claims he had protection under the U.S. constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech and that any information he provided the media was public record.

The trial’s first witness was Deanna Fowler of Columbus, who was a Lee Sheriff’s collections officer when Bumphis was arrested by Tupelo Police Department.

She worked with Hurst and said she also spoke with media, providing information she believed was public record. Fowler was suspended without pay for five days and demoted for her actions.

Former Daily Journal law enforcement reporter Danza Johnson also testified about his interaction with the sheriff’s office for information after Bumphis’ arrest. In June, Aycock granted part of Lee County’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. She said issues Hurst brought to hearings for unemployment benefits already were decided judicially and could not be tried again.

However, she agreed Hurst could pursue his lawsuit on the media communications policy to determine if it is constitutionally valid under the First Amendment.

Hurst is represented by Tupelo attorneys Jim Waide and Rachel Pierce Waide.

Defense attorneys are Gary Carnathan and Bill Murphree of Tupelo.