Civil Service Commission Upholds Termination Of African American Boston Firefighter For Social Media Posts But Also Orders Investigation Into Boston Fire Department

In Rowe v. Boston Fire Department (D1-18-074), issued on August 29, 2019, the Civil Service Commission upheld the discharge of Boston Firefighter Octavius Rowe for the content of his social media posts and podcasts. The Commission’s summary of its decision states:

Firefighter Rowe maintained a presence on social media and participated in various podcasts inwhich he regularly identified himself as a Boston firefighter. As part of those same public forums, he repeatedly spoke, wrote and/or posted bigoted comments that violate the norms of decency and various rules and regulations of the Boston Fire Department, including conduct unbecoming a firefighter, justifying his termination. Firefighter Rowe’s public posts and statements included: referring to the long-time head of the Boston Urban League as a “shoe-shine Negro”; referring to the then-Boston Police Superintendent (now Commissioner) as a “feckless, jolly black face”; a statement that black men should not share their “genetic material” with a “filthy, filthy white woman” and that “laying with white women is like spitting in your mother’s womb”; a post listing the date, time and location (including the name of the school and a map) where Firefighter Rowe objects to young boys and girls holding hands with members of the same sex; multiple references to gay men as “homophiles”; a reference to so-called “homophiles” seeking to “normalize homophilia particularly among children in order to GAIN and EASE sexual access to them”; references to lesbians as “lez-beasts”; a reply to a person online stating: “You’re QUEER. You’re not significant enough for me to troll”; another online reply stating: “Why haven’t any homophiles been killed by Police?”; a picture of Firefighter Rowe, with a clenched fist, wearing a t-shirt with a stick figure with Pan-African colors kicking in the groin a stick figure with LGBTQ colors; a reference to the head of the Boston Chapter of Black Lives Matter, a Boston resident, as a person with: “Homophile/Trans/Femm Interests”; a reference to Black Lives Matter as “HOMOPHILES LIVES MATTER”; a reference to the leaders of Black Lives Matter as “slowwitted, uniformed agents of sexuality confusion/cooning” who “cannot have access to our children.”; a reference to a black entertainer as a “COM-PLETE bitch”; and a reference to “SmallHats (So-called Jews)”.

As if upholding of the termination were not controversial enough, the Commission went on to take the extraordinary step of initiating its own inquiry into how the Boston Fire Department (BFD) handled the investigation of a white firefighter accused of using “the n-word in a social media posting that has come to the Commission’s attention in the course of the present appeal.”

Firefighter Rowe mounted three challenges to his termination: (1) no nexus between his conduct and his job; (2) First Amendment protected speech; and (3) disparate treatment1 . The Commision analyzed the First Amendment defense under federal precedents adopted by Mass. courts. The decision rejected the nexus argument because firefighters enter the homes of people, some of whom belong to races/genders/sexual identities Rowe disparaged in his postings. It analyzed the First Amendment argument under traditional caselaw and ultimately agreed with BFD that “there is no basis for concluding that Firefighter’s Rowe’s interest in free speech outweighed BFD’s interest in providing efficient and effective public safety services.”

The disparate treatment contention – that white firefighters’ repugnant social media posts were treated more leniently than Rowe’s – caused the Commission more difficulty. One white firefighter who “posted vile comments regarding Rachel Maddow and Senator Elizabeth Warren” had been forced to resign. Another was also forced to resign, rather than contest his termination, whose “hateful, bigoted postings” included one stating “I Never Ever Trust a Dirty Fucking Muslim.” As part of Rowe’s defense at his hearing, he produced evidence that another white firefighter had also made racist social media posts but had only received a warning from BFD. The Commission rejected the disparate treatment argument, concluding that, regardless of how others may have been treated, Rowe’s conduct was so unacceptable that termination was warranted.

Normally, that would be the end of the case, but the Commission then took the extraordinary step of conducting its own inquiry:

to ascertain what further action should be recommended by the Commission or taken by the BFD to further investigate the allegation that a BFD firefighter has allegedly used the n-word in a social media posting that has come to the Commission’s attention in the course of the present appeal.

As authority for this highly unusual investigation, the Commission’s relied on Section 72 of Chapter 31 (the civil service statute), which states:

The commission or administrator [HRD], upon the request of an appointing authority, shall inquire into the efficiency and conduct of any employee in a civil service position who was appointed by such appointing authority. The commission or the administrator may also conduct such an inquiry at any time without such request by an appointing authority. After conducting an inquiry pursuant to this paragraph, the commission or administrator may recommend to the appointing authority that such employee be removed or may make other appropriate recommendations.” (emphasis added by Commission)

The Commission then ordered BFD within 30 days “to file a written response to this inquiry which should include recommended steps for conducting a further investigation of the above-referenced allegation.”

The lesson from all of this, besides a basic suggestion that employees refrain from categorically criticizing or disparaging any group of people, is to simply stay off of all forms of social media. As this blog has pointed out several times, most recently earlier this month, employees have little to gain and a lot to lose through participation in social media.

1 Disparate treatment occurs when one employee or group of employees is treated differently from another employee or group of employees for the same or similar conduct.

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