ABERDEEN – A lawsuit alleging a former Lee County deputy’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock on Tuesday.
After former deputy Rodricus Carltez Hurst’s attorneys rested their case, attorneys for Lee County argued that Hurst failed to meet his burden of proof and asked for a directed verdict.
After considering the directed verdict in her chambers for almost an hour, Aycock said the court determined as a matter of law that Hurst was a public employee in official duties when he engaged in the speech. She said even if he was a private resident, the type of speech he engaged in does not qualify for First Amendment protection because it was not of great public concern.
“The case might have been a matter of public concern if the speech had been about a football player from Mississippi State being roughed up by jail employees,” Aycock said. “That wouldn’t be because he was a football player at Mississippi
State but because it would expose alleged jail abuse.”
In the lawsuit, Hurst claimed he was fired because he talked to news reporters about a New Year’s Eve bar fight.
The suit contended the firing violated his rights to free speech when he responded to a question from Daily Journal sports reporter Brad Locke and others that Mississippi State University football player Chad Bumphis of Tupelo had been arrested after the fight, then released on his own recognizance.
The sheriff’s department has a policy of employee termination for releasing information without authorization.
Lee County’s attorneys contended Sheriff Jim Johnson had the authority to fire Hurst because he violated the agency’s policy.
Hurst claimed 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.
Defense attorney Bill Murphree said to prove his rights were violated, Hurst was obligated to prove he was not speaking as a part of performing his official duties and instead was speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern.
Murphree said Hurst was obligated to prove his interest in speaking outweighed the Lee County Sheriff’s Office’s interest in maintaining workforce efficiency.
The case was dismissed Tuesday around 3 p.m. A seven-person jury had been selected to hear the case Monday, but the judge’s directed verdict eliminated the need for the jury to make a decision.