HARRISBURG, Pa. — A Pennsylvania highway department worker won her job back Tuesday after being fired for ranting on Facebook about local school bus drivers, including a warning that she would happily crash into a school bus.
Commonwealth Court on Tuesday ordered the reinstatement of Rachel L. Carr as a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation roadway programs technician, ruling free speech protections outweighed concerns about comments the judges described as "reprehensible" and "abhorrent."
Carr was off duty and at home when she posted to the "Creeps of Peeps" site in May 2016 that school bus drivers in northwestern Pennsylvania, near the New York border, are "horrible" and "hella scary." She posted that earlier in the day "one asked me to t-bone it."
She used an expletive to emphasize how little she cared "about those babies and I will gladly smash into a school bus." In response to others' response on the Facebook group, she wrote that she cared about her own safety more than that of the children. Members of Creeps of Peeps reported her to PennDOT, and she was fired after an investigation.
Judge Kevin Brobson, writing for the three-judge panel , said Carr's comments merit special protection because they address an issue of public concern.
"Despite the incendiary verbiage Carr used, the main thrust of her remarks centered on the fact that a bus driver consistently engaged in dangerous driving habits, thus necessitating Carr to take evasive maneuvers in response," Brobson wrote. "Carr's comments served as a verbal manifestation of her frustrations in having to do so."
Carr's post referred to school bus drivers as a group, saying they that if a vehicle pulls out in front of her or crosses a yellow line, "that's their problem. A sedan, school bus or water truck. (Your) kids, your problem. Not mine."
A PennDOT supervisor said the agency was concerned that if she "acted on her threat of crashing into a school bus, the department could be exposed to liability for her actions," Brobson recounted.
"We conclude that the department's generalized interest in the safety of the traveling public does not outweigh Carr's specific interest in commenting on the safety of a particular bus driver," the judge wrote. "While Carr's comments are undoubtedly inappropriate, such comments still receive protection under the First Amendment."
Carr's lawyer did not immediate return a phone message seeking comment. A PennDOT spokesman declined comment on what he called a personnel matter. Asked if there were plans to appeal, he said the opinion was under legal evaluation.
Carr was on probation at the time, having been promoted from temporary clerk to the $31,000-a-year roadway programs technician job two months earlier. Roadway programs technicians monitor and report data to help agency operations. She was fired in June 2016.
The case was sent to the Civil Service Commission with direction to reinstate her and "exercise its discretion" regarding payment of salary or lost wages. A section of her lawsuit that alleged violation of her free speech rights remains pending before Commonwealth Court.