A white Columbia Fire Department captain who was fired from his $53,722-a-year job for making threatening remarks on social media about a Black Lives Matter protest has filed a lawsuit against the city alleging racial discrimination.
The remarks by James “Jimmy” Morris were made in two posts on the veteran firefighter’s personal Facebook in 2016.
However, in his lawsuit, Morris says government cannot “restrict or otherwise chill individual civil rights.”
In reaction to a white secessionist State House rally about the Confederate flag, the Black Lives Matter movement staged a counterprotest on the night of July 16, 2016. That protest closed the major Interstate 126 corridor on the west side of the city.
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Morris posted on his Facebook page, “Idiots shutting down I-126. Better not be there when I get off work or there is gonna be some run over dumb asses.”
He also posted, “Public Service Announcement: If you attempt to shut down an interstate, highway, etc on my way home, you best hope I’m not one of the first vehicles because your ass WILL get run over. Period! That is all ...”
The next day, city officials fired Morris, who worked at the North Main Street Fire Station.
City manager Teresa Wilson said Morris’ Facebook posts demonstrated “a lack of respect for the lives and safety of others.” Each city employee is an “ambassador” who should show “civility, respect and professionalism,” she said at the time.
In his lawsuit, pending in federal court, Morris says he supports racial equality and the right of Black Lives Matter protesters peacefully to assemble. But their rally on a public roadway was not proper “because of safety concerns,” he contends.
The comment that he would run over protesters was “exaggerated,” Morris says in the lawsuit. The lawsuit also claims Morris’ speech on Facebook “was about matters of public concern and was not made pursuant to his job duties.”
Moreover, the lawsuit contends, while two white co-workers were fired because of similar Facebook posts, two African-American coworkers made the same sort of posts. One of the black co-workers was suspended, but the other was not disciplined at all, his lawsuit alleges.
“Plaintiff was terminated based on his race,” Morris’s lawsuit alleges.
In his lawsuit, Morris said he consistently received “above average, exceeding or (at worst) average performance evaluations” during his 17 years as a city firefighter. A month before he was fired, Morris says he was commended for rescuing a person in a house fire.
Morris’ lawyer, Paul Porter of Columbia, said, “Our lawsuit says that Jimmy was terminated for engaging in free speech and that other non-white employees engaged in the same sort of speech and were not terminated.”
The First Amendment prohibits firing a government employee for speaking about matters of public concern, Porter said. “We believe this case is important, and that we can ultimately prove both a free speech violation and race discrimination.”
In its answer to the former firefighter’s lawsuit, the city asserts its dismissal of Morris was lawful “and reasonable and justified under the circumstances.”
Asked Tuesday whether the city had any other comment, a spokeswoman said, “The city of Columbia does not comment on pending litigation.”
Morris now works as a firefighter at another Midlands fire department. His lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for back pay and lost benefits, loss of reputation, and mental and emotional distress.