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Firefighter’s First Amendment Rights Defended For Criticizing Defaced Public Monuments

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Published on: January 24, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. — Denouncing a politically correct “cancel culture” that punishes anyone who voices opinions that challenge prevailing views, The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of a firefighter who was fired for condemning the vandalism of a public monument on social media. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed a First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of Jon Reinmuth, a firefighter with the Henrico County, who lost his job after criticizing the local school district for posting on its Facebook page a photograph that appeared to glorify the defacement of the Robert E. Lee Monument, which had been covered in graffiti, including anti-racist slogans and messages. The lawsuit alleges that the County and officials deprived Reinmuth of his right to free speech and seeks his reinstatement and back pay.

Affiliate attorney Tim Coffield assisted with the First Amendment lawsuit, Reinmuth v. County of Henrico.

“Tolerance cuts both ways. It isn’t always an easy pill to swallow, but that’s the way free speech is supposed to work, especially when it comes to tolerating speech that we may disagree with,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Remember, the First Amendment is a steam valve. It allows people to speak their minds, air their grievances and contribute to a larger dialogue that hopefully results in a more just world. Silencing unpopular viewpoints by shouting them down, censoring them, or criminalizing them is like removing the steam valve. Without it, frustration builds, anger grows and people become more volatile.”

In May 2020, demonstrations and unrest broke out nationwide in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. In Richmond, Va., demonstrators focused their outrage on several statues erected on Monument Avenue, including the Robert E. Lee Monument, which was defaced with spray paint and covered with phrases that not only invoked social justice (such as “Black Lives Matter”) but included profanities that called for violence against the police. In June 2020, a local broadcaster published a picture that would go viral nationally of two young black females dancing or posing on the vandalized Lee Monument in a celebratory manner. The picture was thereafter posted on the Henrico County Public Schools’ Facebook page, pointing out that one of the females was an HCPS student. While some commenters praised the photo, others were critical of the message it conveyed and HCPS’s decision to post the photo. Reinmuth, an 18-year veteran of the County Division of Fire, joined those criticizing the decision to post the photo on HCPS’ Facebook page. While off-duty, Reinmuth commented “Disgraceful” and added, “Will they be posing with their new TVs as well?”, an allusion to Reinmuth’s belief that the photograph appeared to be advocating for unlawful activity associated with the riots such as vandalism and looting. When Reinmuth’s superiors learned of his comments on the HCPS Facebook page, he was summoned for interrogation about the comments and then terminated the same day. Although Reinmuth filed a grievance challenging his termination, the decision to fire him because of his comments on the Facebook page was upheld. In the First Amendment lawsuit filed on behalf of Reinmuth, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that Reinmuth had a right as a citizen to express his opinion on the appropriateness of the photo and its posting by a school district given that it related to a matter of significant debate in the community and a matter of public interest and concern. The complaint asserts that Reinmuth’s termination for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment deprived him of his constitutional rights.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, defends individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated and educates the public about threats to their freedoms.

The Rutherford Institute’s complaint in Reinmuth v. County of Henrico

Article posted with permission from John Whitehead

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