Settlement a ‘Very Significant Victory for Free Speech,’ Attorney Says
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County voted Tuesday evening to approve a $450,000 settlement to Joshua Lipscomb, the firefighter who was suspended by the Nashville Fire Department (NFD) for a February 2022 social media post he made under a pseudonym without mentioning the fire department.
“This is a very significant victory for free speech,” says Tricia Herzfeld of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC, who represented Lipscomb along with civil rights attorney Abby Rubenfeld of Rubenfeld Law Office, PC. “You don’t give up your rights to free speech just because you work for the government. Josh stood up for himself and all firefighters by challenging this illegal conduct. We are pleased with the results.”
A lifelong resident of Nashville and member of the NFD since 2017, Lipscomb tweeted his personal belief against the Metro Council’s decision to pass a bill approving a license plate reader (LPR) pilot program that he believed was discriminatory. He shared his agreement with numerous community groups that opposed the bill, emphasizing that the decision would cause harm to the Black community and other communities of color. Using his comedian-stage name, Josh Black, the tweet did not identify him as Joshua Lipscomb or a firefighter for the NFD.
Following the tweet, an NFD panel suspended Lipscomb in March for 16 days for what it deemed a violation of department policy. In April, Lipscomb filed a complaint against the NFD and the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, claiming that specific policies from the NFD’s operational procedures and guidelines were unconstitutional. The filing asserted that the suspension violated Lipscomb’s right to free speech.
In October, Chancery Court Judge Patricia Head Moskal issued a temporary injunction that banned the NFD from applying its defamation and derogatory notices, policies that banned employees from criticizing any government agency of Metro Nashville.
In addition to awarding Lipscomb the six-figure settlement, the NFD revoked the challenged policies, and the NFD’s social media policy has been updated to comply with the First Amendment. The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County has also agreed to follow its existing due process policies.
“This case establishes, once again, that the most basic personal right we have as Americans does indeed apply to all of us, including public employees,” Rubenfeld says. “The settlement sends an important message about the significance of the First Amendment and that violations against anyone, including public employees, will be costly.”
Lipscomb is resigning from the NFD.
“The NFD punished me for speaking out against racism,” Lipscomb says. “I stood my ground, fought back and won. I believe that the Black people who were attacked by firefighter hoses during the civil rights movement would be proud of today’s victory.”
Founded in 1952, BS&J is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, with additional locations in Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Las Vegas, Nevada, along with St. Louis, Missouri. Visit www.bsjfirm.com for additional information about the firm.
Rubenfeld has practiced law for 43 years, with an emphasis on civil rights and on family law. She practices throughout Tennessee.