Judge rules suit can go to trial

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 5, 2003

Staff report

The lawsuit filed by the head of the Suffolk firefighter union against the city and its fire chief can go to trial, a federal district judge ruled recently.

Lt. J.R. Lilienthal, president of the Suffolk Professional Fire and Rescue Association, filed the suit in March after Fire Chief Mark R. Outlaw ordered him to stop discussing fire department issues with Suffolk City Council members and city officials.

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The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, charged the city and Outlaw with violating Lilienthal’s constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and free association.

The city had sought in June to have the suit dismissed.

The basis for Lilienthal’s complaint is a Sept. 24, 2002, memo from Outlaw that threatened Lilienthal with termination if he did not stop discussing fire department matters with city officials.

In denying the city’s motion for dismissal and summary judgment, Judge Rebecca Beach Smith noted that the speech in question dealt with the operation of the fire department and its direct effect on the public.

&uot;Speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values,&uot; Smith wrote.

&uot;Plaintiff’s complaint leaves no doubt that defendants’ threat to terminate plaintiff, if he continued to communicate with members of City Council, the City Manager’s Office, or department directors, was intended to chill his right to engage in what the court has just determined, for purposes of this motion to dismiss, is protected expression,&uot; Smith wrote. &uot;Therefore, the threat is actionable.&uot;