Free Speech Prevails

Former Springfield police aide wins First Amendment case against Springfield

Thelma Barone

Thelma Barone, former multicultural liaison for Springfield Police Department, was fired in 2015 when she refused to sign a “last-chance agreement.”

The agreement, a disciplinary contract between an employer and a union-represented employee, would have prohibited her from saying anything disparaging or negative about the police department to the community or reporting on racial profiling and discrimination.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Sept. 5 that Barone had her First Amendment rights violated when she was ordered to sign the agreement to keep her job in 2015. The court’s decision overrules a ruling made last year by U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, who dismissed Barone’s claims.

The agreement was the result of Barone’s appearance at a February 2015 Springfield City Club meeting. The meeting was held during the time when anti-police-brutality demonstrations and racial profiling in Ferguson, Missouri, were in the front of people’s minds, Barone tells Eugene Weekly. So the Springfield community had an interest in whether racial profiling was happening at home.

Appearing as a representative of the Springfield Police Department, Barone was asked whether she had heard of instances of racial profiling from the community.

She said yes.

A week after Barone spoke at the Springfield City Club meeting, former Springfield Police Chief Tim Doney placed her on administrative leave because of alleged untruthfulness during investigations in previous cases, according to documents from the Ninth Circuit Court. The department found that she violated several sections of the police department’s code of conduct, and she remained on leave.

In July 2015, Barone says, high-ranking members of Springfield Police Department and the police union demanded that she sign a last-chance agreement or face termination.

The agreement, among other things, would have stripped her of her ability to speak negatively about the city or the police department, and she would no longer work with the Latino community in Springfield.

If Barone had signed the agreement, the next time she was asked if she had heard of any community complaints about racial profiling, she could not have answered the question truthfully.

She says the agreement didn’t look right to her, so she wanted some time to look it over.

“‘Thelma, come on,’” she recalls hearing. “That made my hair stand up.”

Because she refused to sign the agreement, Doney fired her, according to court documents. Her termination ended 13 years of service in the police department, where she says she worked to build bridges with police and communities of color in Springfield.

Barone couldn’t find work anywhere else because being fired by the police department compromised her credibility, she says. Because she had no income, she lost her house.

Today she lives in Eugene and is finishing her master’s degree in social work.

The Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling shows Barone was in fact aware of “marked increase in the number of complaints of racial profiling” in spring 2013 and regularly heard complaints from the Latino community.

The court says Barone made that comment at Springfield City Club as a uniformed police representative, so her speech wasn’t protected in that case. However, the police department’s demand to sign a last-chance agreement would have restricted Barone’s First Amendment rights as a private citizen.

When preparing for the case, Andrew Lewinter, Barone’s attorney, tells EW he couldn’t find any instance of a government employer attempting to use a last-chance agreement to control someone’s First Amendment rights. Usually, it’s a contract for employees who have been “screwing up” and gives them one more chance to turn things around, he says.

The Ninth Circuit Court agreed.

The court ruled, despite being a public employee, Barone has the right to have a voice as a private citizen on matters of public concern.

“It sends a clear message that governments have to respect the First Amendment,” Lewinter says.

Barone immigrated to the U.S. when she was 22 from Mexico. For her, the court’s ruling reassures her that this is the U.S. and its residents still have the power to criticize the government — even if it’s your employer.

“This is important for everyone. You should be free to stand up and criticize the government and keep them accountable,” she says. “If we let the government trample on our rights, we’re going to return to the country we’re escaping.”

The city of Springfield declined to comment until the court ruling’s status is no longer pending. That’s because, Barone says, the next process is to see whether the city of Springfield or the former Springfield police chief can be held liable for her losses.