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ACLU joins ex-firefighter's suit over online comments

By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader

June 21. 2017 8:26PM




It started as a spat on a Facebook page in 2015 over posting information heard over the Farmington emergency broadcast channel.

Four days later, Alex Morin was fired from his $13-an-hour firefighter job and told he violated the town’s social media policy. The policy prohibits employees from posting anything that would harm the reputation of town government.

Morin sued his fire chief, the town manager and selectmen in federal court.

And last week, the New Hampshire branch of the American Civil Liberties Union requested intervenor status in the case.

“Granite Staters do not lose their right to free speech when they become government employees,” said Gilles Bissonnette, ACLU-NH legal director. “As the United States Supreme Court has held, public employees may not be compelled to relinquish the First Amendment rights they would otherwise enjoy as citizens to comment on matters of public interest.”

The case involves free speech issues, small town politics, and a dispute within the classic bulwark of rural New Hampshire — the small town fire department.

According to Morin’s lawsuit, he was out of town in July 2015 but monitoring the Farmington Community Forum Facebook page when a resident posted details heard on a scanner about an ambulance call. Morin, who grew up in town and dreamed of being a firefighter, admonished the resident for posting what he said was personal information.

Legal documents in the case -- the ACLU's interpretation, the firefighter’s lawsuit, and the town's response -- can be viewed below:



A lengthy spat followed, according to the lawsuit. Accusations flew — of meddling, of bullying, of supporting President Obama.

“Have some decency and stop being nosy,” Morin posted at one point.

“Lighten...up Alex Morin” wrote town resident Edward King, adding “If it bothers you that bad Alex Morin, then get off from Facebook.”

On July 20, 2015, Farmington selectmen met behind closed doors, discussed a complaint about the Facebook spat and decided to fire Morin and another firefighter who participated, Dave Sowards.

Town Administrator Arthur Capello issued the news the following day. Morin’s appeals to the fire chief and selectmen went nowhere. Sowards eventually got his job back after a 30-day suspension.

In its response to the matter, town officials said Morin had been twice disciplined for fighting in 2013, and for answering a call in his personal vehicle in 2015. Emails to the selectman chairman and the town’s attorney, Portsmouth lawyer Thomas Closson, were not immediately returned.

Morin has asked for monetary, compensatory and punitive damages. He currently works as a firefighter in Brattleboro, Vt.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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