A Lakeville police officer who was fired after talking to the media is suing the city in federal court, arguing that the termination violated his First Amendment rights.
Rick Bussler, a Lakeville officer for about 17 years, was fired in November 2014 on the grounds that he violated a policy barring officers from talking to the media without the police chief’s permission.
Bussler is arguing that the media policy is flawed and that, in any event, he didn’t break it. He says city officials violated both the First Amendment and federal civil rights laws in firing him, and he’s seeking damages of more than $50,000, including loss of income.
“The policy is too broad, too vague and improperly enforced against him,” said Marshall Tanick, Bussler’s attorney.
The suit was filed after Bussler appealed his termination to a state arbitrator, who decided in favor of Lakeville.
“As applied, we’ve already had one finding that the termination was valid and lawful,” said Patricia Beety, an attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities who is representing Lakeville. “We also are denying that there was any type of constitutional violation with respect to the city’s employment decision, and the city stands by that decision.”
According to the arbitrator’s report, Bussler was fired on the grounds that he released information about active police investigations to the media without permission and was dishonest when asked if he was the source.
In January 2014 Bussler, who has a media background and owns newspapers in southeastern Minnesota, spoke to the media about a fatal car crash. According to the arbitrator’s report, Police Chief Jeff Long told Bussler not to speak to reporters again without permission.
Later that year, a reporter apparently received information about two open Lakeville police investigations. Bussler denied releasing unauthorized information, but an internal investigation by an independent investigator concluded that he was the source of the leak.
Similar cases elsewhere
The First Amendment rights of public sector employees have been the subject of recent cases in other cities.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a New Jersey police officer who was demoted because his co-workers believed, mistakenly, that he was involved in a local mayoral campaign.
Though the circumstances of Bussler’s case are different, Tanick said, it comes at a time when courts across the country have had to address the boundaries of public employees’ rights to free speech.
“It’s an area that’s undergoing a fair amount of litigation and some degree of change as the law develops,” he said.
A scheduling conference in the case is set for Sept. 7.