It’s not supposed to be against the law to speak your mind and what’s more, Americans depend on the nation’s lawmakers and law enforcement officers to uphold the Constitution’s protections. But what about when a law enforcement agency is denying one of its own the right to speak his mind about, say, the intrusion of the federal government into state and local business?
In some parts of the country, exercising that right is apparently not allowed. Enter Trinity County, Calif., where the sheriff – Bruce Haney – has found himself embroiled in a civil rights lawsuit filed by one of his deputies, Mark Potts, for allegedly punishing Potts over comments he made about the federal Leviathan in a series of editorials in the local newspaper.
Potts, who filed his complaint in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, said in court papers he was seeking to “vindicate” his “free speech rights” under “federal and state constitutional and statutory law.”
“Defendant officers of the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office have reprimanded Mr. Potts for engaging in expressive political speech and have prohibited him from speaking as a citizen on important matters of public concern,” the complaint reads.
“This action seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to redress the violation of Mr. Potts’ rights under the United States Constitution, the California Constitution, and the Public Safety Officers’ Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBRA).”
According to the complaint, Potts said he began writing politically themed letters to the editor of the The Trinity Journal newspaper “several years ago.”
No disruption in the work place
“These letters, authored and signed by Mr. Potts in his capacity as a private citizen, addressed a variety of topics of public concern, including the wisdom and constitutionality of various laws, and the appropriate scope of federal governmental authority,” the complaint said.
The complaint went onto say that Potts was not in uniform nor did he use public/county resources when writing his editorials.
His “letters have never caused a disruption of the workplace, affected the performance of his job duties, or otherwise interfered with the operations of the Sheriff’s Office,” said the complaint, adding that during the course of his official duties, he “consistently received positive performance reviews.”
Prior to Haney’s 2010 election as Trinity County Sheriff, the complaint says, the county district attorney asked then-Sheriff Lorrac Craig to force Potts to discontinue writing his letters, a request that Craig refused to carry out.
After Haney assumed his office in January 2011, he and “Undersheriff Ken Langton called Mr. Potts in for a meeting to discuss his letters to the editor,” says the complaint. “Sheriff Haney stated that the District Attorney had threatened not to prosecute any cases that Mr. Potts investigated if he continued to write letters to the editor, and that Mr. Potts needed to stop writing letters to the editor.”
Some months later, in August of last year, the complaint says Potts was once more warned to stop writing his letters by sheriff’s deputy Sgt. Ray Hurlbert, who allegedly said Potts’ letters were a “problem” for the department.
“Mr. Potts asked for guidance on the scope of the prohibition of his written expression but was never provided with guidance on what topics would be deemed by the Sheriff’s Office to be acceptable or unacceptable,” said the complaint. “Unable to obtain any clarification from the Sheriff’s Office about the scope of any prohibition, Mr. Potts understood the Office either to be imposing a blanket ban on all letters to the editor, or to be requiring Mr. Potts to draw his own line between” what he felt was and was not appropriate.
Sought guidance but a reprimand instead
The complaint said Potts published four more letters to the editor in the local paper between October and November 2011 on topics ranging from “drug policy, including drug legalization, and the right to carry concealed weapons.”
“On December 5, 2011, Sgt. Hurlburt provided Mr. Potts with written notice of an administrative investigation into his expressive letter-writing activities,” said the complaint. “The notice letter cited six provisions of the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office Policy Manual and explained that Mr. Potts was being investigated for possible violations of these provisions. Mr. Potts was ordered to appear for an interrogation concerning the potential violations.”
Two weeks later, the department conducted “an investigatory interrogation” of Potts, in which he objected “on the grounds that his free speech rights were being violated.”
In February, the department issued Potts a formal reprimand for his conduct, saying that by writing his letters he was in violation of a number of departmental policies. Potts stopped writing letters following his reprimand.
In March, Potts; through his attorneys, asked Trinity County to expunge the reprimand from his work record, a request that was denied a month later.
There is an old saying in the military that goes, “We’re here to defend democracy, not practice it.” It sounds like that’s the case in Trinity County, Calif. as well.