Houston Suspended Four Firefighters for Being Mean to Their Union President on Facebook
The end of Bryan Sky-Eagle’s short stint as president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association did not seem like a particularly fun time for the union.
Before Sky-Eagle resigned just 11 months into his three-year term as president in September 2014, the contract he’d negotiated with City Hall was rejected by a stunning 93 percent of his firefighters. Sky-Eagle sued the union’s umbrella organization, the International Association of Fire Fighters, without even his own union members’ approval to do so. He stopped reporting to work at Union Hall and refused to give back his union-issued truck.
Sky-Eagle even wiped the hard drive on his union computer before walking out the door. Union officials knew so little about their short-lived president’s negotiations with the city that they requested emails from City Hall just to see what Sky-Eagle was talking about with Mayor Annise Parker, then-City Attorney David Feldman and Parker’s chief policy officer, Janice Evans.
But perhaps the strangest detail about Sky-Eagle’s abrupt departure was his official reason for stepping down in the first place. “I’ve been warned to watch myself at night,” he told reporters at a press conference announcing his resignation. He spoke of “threatening emails” and threats of “imminent violence” coming from within his own union. In a letter to members explaining his reasons for resigning, Sky-Eagle blamed the “venomous actions, mental and physical, taken against me by those who call themselves my ‘brothers.’”
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The city’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation that ended in the suspension of at least four firefighters for violating both the Houston Fire Department’s code of conduct and the city’s social media policy for employees. One firefighter was even accused of violating a city policy aimed at preventing workplace violence.
And as of last week, three of those suspensions have been overturned, according to arbitrators’ reports provided to the Houston Press. Those reports, from independent arbitrators called in to hear the case when the firefighters appealed the punishments imposed by the city, show those “threats” against Sky-Eagle were little more than frustrated Facebook banter that the city took very seriously. The reports also underscore the city’s strict social media policy for employees that, as applied, may be an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.
By all accounts, Sky-Eagle’s brief tenure as fire union president was rocky. In addition to negotiating a contract that almost none of his members would approve, he was also fighting allegations he violated the union’s constitution and bylaws. Current union president Alvin White says Sky-Eagle was about to face a union trial board for 13 separate violations. “He was accused by the HPFFA board of ignoring board votes and decisions, firing longtime staff and consultants without board approval, commencing litigation against the IAFF without board approval, and entering into hundreds of thousands of dollars of professional services and vendor contracts without board approval,” White told the Press. “All of that was followed by his purging of HPFFA-owned computers on his way out of office.” (Sky-Eagle did not return a request for comment from the Press.)
But what really seemed to roil rank-and-file members was the truck Sky-Eagle wouldn’t give back.
The union owned a pickup truck for Sky-Eagle's use in his duties as president. According to one arbitrator’s report, Sky-Eagle claimed he no longer felt safe working at Union Hall. “Some Union members viewed Sky-Eagle as having abandoned his duties and responsibilities as President when, as they saw it, he ‘reassigned himself’ away from the Union Hall back to his regular job at a fire station,” the report states. Sometime during the course of the investigation into the perceived threats against him, Sky-Eagle claimed he’d been jeered at and shoved by members once while leaving a meeting. Sky-Eagle told investigators that one firefighter even came to the union offices, screaming at him and frightening other office workers.
Against this backdrop, firefighters set up some closed Facebook groups to gossip, vent and talk about union and HFD happenings — Facebook groups that blocked Sky-Eagle. In one of those groups, a firefighter posted a photo that looked like the union truck, and wrote this:
“Anyone seen it? Apparently [the union board of directors] asked for the truck back since our Union President wasn’t going to the Union hall everyday and the Presidents response was ‘Fk You’ to a certain individual. Apparently we are paying for a certain member to fill his truck up with the Union Card. This is some Bullshit! Have a good day!”
Firefighter Michael Niemann, whose ten-day suspension was overturned last week, started off the comments thread by saying, “The truck needs to be reported stolen,” adding that if he had “the extra set of keys, I’ll go get it myself.”
Firefighter Ryan Horton wrote, “Put a boot on it.” Jaron Black, another firefighter, responded, “I say we get a large group together, with a spare key, and go get it.” The comment earned Black a five-day suspension, which an arbitrator overturned last month.
(This is how Sky-Eagle interpreted Black’s comment, according to what little of his testimony is quoted in the arbitration reports: “Get a mob together and go get the truck. … There was a mob coming. I felt my safety threatened. I didn’t know if there was a spare key. Others were involved.”)
“I’m in. Friday let’s go get it,” Horton replied. Those seven words earned him a four-day suspension, which was also overturned last month. His suspension letter from the city called the comment “threatening,” “bullying” and “aggressive” because it “discussed plans and commented on plans to retake or attempt to retake” the union truck from Sky-Eagle.
Niemann posted the most aggressive comment: “I would rather go as an individual. That way maybe he will become aggressive trying to guard [the truck] and I can ‘defensively’ beat the piss out of him.”
According to the reports, someone eventually printed off a page of those comments for Sky-Eagle, whose complaint to the city led to an OIG investigation into no fewer than nine firefighters. The office sustained complaints against five of them.
While none of the arbitrators’ reports seem to place much stock in OIG’s investigation into the alleged Facebook threats, the report in Niemann’s case contains biting criticism of how the city decided to suspend a bunch of firefighters because of some quasi-private Facebook comments about an intra-union squabble.
“OIG found that Niemann was lying and his responses were the result of a union orchestrated plot to subvert the investigation,” the report states. “There was no basis for that conclusion, particularly since the nature of the allegedly common answers of the respondents was dictated by the twenty-four-question form used by the OIG to obtain those answers.” The report goes on to call the city’s internal investigation into the firefighters biased and “fatally flawed.”
That same report goes on to argue that the case highlights problems with how the city has applied its social media policy for employees. That policy states, in part:
“The City expects its employees to be truthful, courteous, and respectful toward supervisors, co-workers, citizens, customers, and other persons associated with the City. Employees shall not engage in name-calling or personal attacks or other such demeaning behavior.”
One of the more basic concepts in First Amendment law is that government restrictions of speech must be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.” In other words, if the government thinks something is so dangerous and potentially damaging that it wants to ban it, it better be specific.
In the case at hand, the city’s social media policy fails that test, the arbitrator wrote:
“In order for the Policy to be constitutional, it must be both drawn and applied narrowly. [The city’s social media policy] as applied in this case does not meet that standard. It was used to restrict and discipline ‘union speak’ in a closed forum strictly about union problems. If Niemann said the same thing at a union meeting and the City sought to discipline him, it would clearly be operating beyond its powers.”
Granted, this is one arbitrator’s opinion on one case (another arbitrator, for instance, ruled that Black violated the social media policy but that he deserved only a written warning). Whether the courts would agree is a whole other matter.
And naturally the city doesn’t seem too worried about it.
“Our social media policy is sound and was drafted based on similar policies in effect in other cities,” Parker spokeswoman Evans wrote in a prepared statement. “We continue to stand by it."
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