Nashville, TN – A now-former Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD) officer has filed a federal lawsuit against the city for violation of his First Amendment rights, after he was fired for a comment he made on social media about an officer-involved shooting.
The controversy stemmed from a series of comments that then-Officer Anthony Venable made following the July 2016 death of Philando Castile, who ignored repeated commands to stop reaching for a firearm during a traffic stop in Minnesota, and was shot by St. Anthony Police Department Officer Jeronimo Yanez.
The media went wild with its reporting of the case, largely due to a false narrative by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed only what happened after the incident – not what led up to it or what occurred during the shooting.
As accusations of police bias and brutality swirled, Officer Venable, an eight-year veteran of the department, defended Officer Yanez’s actions during a Facebook conversation, the Tennessean reported.
When a commenter criticized Officer Yanez for having shot Castile four times, Officer Venable wrote that he “would have done 5.”
The MNPD launched an internal investigation into Officer Venable’s comments, and ultimately decommissioned him on July 7, 2016. He was later fired from the department in February, 2017, the Nashville Scene reported.
“Certainly, to be clear, you have the First Amendment right to state to anyone that you would have shot Mr. Castile five (5) times instead of the four (4) times he was actually shot," MPD Chief Steve Anderson wrote in a 2017 letter to Venable, according to the Tennessean.
"However making such a statement is inconsistent with your employment with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department and making such comments has disqualified you from serving in a police officer capacity," the chief concluded.
Officer Venable was MNPD’s Officer of the Year in 2014.
Venable appealed his termination to the MCSC, and Administrative Law Judge Steve Darnell overturned his firing and ordered the MNPD to compensate the former officer for back-pay and benefits on Dec. 28, 2017. Darnell also noted that the officer should have only been sanctioned with a 30-day suspension.
But on Tuesday, the civil service commission rejected Judge Darnell’s ruling, and upheld MNPD’s initial decision to terminate Venable.
Venable’s lawsuit contended that the city violated his private citizen free speech rights, and noted that Venable never identified himself as a MNPD officer when he engaged in the online debate.
“The plaintiff sues the defendant for its retaliation against him for the exercise of his freedom of political expression as a private citizen, for his commentary on social media and his response to a comment posted on his personal and private Facebook page about a current event of inherent public concern and nationwide interest,” the suit argued, according to WSMV.
The lawsuit also argued that the MNPD’s social media policy was selectively enforced, as exemplified by the 10-day suspension of another officer who posted a photo of Black Panther Party National Chairman Bobby Seale and Defense Minister Huey Newton, both of whom were armed, the Nashville Patch reported.
Venable’s lawsuit seeks $2 million in damages for “mental anguish, humiliation, embarrassment and emotional injury,” according to the Nashville Scene.
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