A federal jury returned a verdict against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville regarding the termination of a former employee.
The court ruled that Danyelle Bennett was fired based on her exercise of free speech rights under the First Amendment and awarded damages or back pay and emotional injury.
Bennett, who worked as an emergency tele-communicator for 15 years, was fired after posting a comment to her personal Facebook regarding President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.
Her comment rebuffed a stranger’s Facebook remark that the election was decided based on racial lines, responding with a racial comment.
The court found that Bennett’s comment was within her First Amendment right and because her speech was political in nature, “rested on the highest rung of constitutional protection,” according to the press release.
“This is an important vindication of public employees freedom to exercise their right of free speech,” said Larry Crain, attorney for Bennett. “We should never tolerate government retaliation against an employee for speaking out on a matter of inherent public concern.”
Bennett filed the suit against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County in March 2017, claiming her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated.
The lawsuit stated that she posted a map of “red states” and “blue states” won by Trump on Election Day.
The post, made the next morning on social media, indicated the margin of delegates won by both President Trump and Hillary Clinton. Bennett says she noticed a comment on the post stating “Redneck states voter for Trump, n****z and latinos states vote for hillary.”
The suit stated Bennett “instinctively responded” to the comment, replying “Thank god we have more America loving rednecks. Red spread across all America. Even n****z and latinos voted for Trump too.” The suit says a fellow employee commented on her response the next day, asking if her reply was a “joke” and that the co-worker was “shocked to see that from you.” Bennett then responded it was a reply to the original commentator’s “ignorant message” and she was “only racist against ignorance and rudeness.”
Bennett removed her comments and all others from the post after approximately 12 hours. However, upon returning to work, she met with management, which placed her on administrative leave. After taking her own leave in addition, she returned to work and was notified she was terminated.
The suit contended Bennett was using her private social media account which was in no way affiliated or directed towards her job or the city. It also claimed her use was within the IT policy regarding social media use and even points to former mayor Megan Barry’s use of social media before the election in support of Hillary Clinton as a source of contention.