A judge found that Nashville Fire Department’s defamation and derogatory statements policies wrongly restricted free speech, leading Metro Nashville to rescind the policies and pay a $450,000 settlement to a firefighter who called Metro Council members “white supremacists.”
In early February 2022, Metro Council voted to create a pilot program for Metro Nashville Police Department to use license plate readers to identify vehicles that may be stolen, or connected to crimes.
Joshua Lipscomb, a Black Nashville firefighter, tweeted on Feb. 2, “I hate feeding into the illusion that America’s government and existence is legitimate so I'm no fan of voting,” the post read. “But the majority of Nashville City Council is white supremacists. I know it's boring, but millennials HAVE to start caring about local elections. These folk want us dead.”
Lipscomb, a comedian who goes by the name Josh Black on social media, didn’t identift himself as a firefighter. Lipscomb posts often about racial issues. He and others have criticized the use of license plate readers as potentially being misused to disproportionately target minorities.
A Nashville Fire Department panel suspended Lipscomb first for 16 days without pay in March, saying he violated the department’s policies with his post, The Tennessean reported.
Lipscomb sued Metro Nashville and the fire department in April, arguing his constitutional right to free speech was violated.
After he filed the lawsuit, Lipscomb also filed a motion to temporarily pause enforcement of the fire department’s defamation and derogatory notices policies for which he had been suspended.
The defamation policy said, “Employees shall not unjustly criticize, ridicule or otherwise defame any person or agency of the Metropolitan Government,” while the derogatory notices policy stated, “Employees shall not post or circulate notices of a derogatory nature.”
In October, a Davidson County Chancery Court judge suspended the policies for being “vague” and “overbroad”.
Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal wrote, “Here, the Fire Department’s ‘defamation’ policy bars all ‘unjust’ criticism or ridicule of any person or Metro agency, for any reason, seeming to invite arbitrary enforcement of the restriction depending upon who is being criticized and who is meting out the discipline based on what he or she might consider as ‘unjust,’ and which may or may not be considered as ‘unjust’ by another person.”
Regarding the derogatory notices policy, the chancellor wrote, “The policy as written prohibits ‘a substantial amount of protected free speech.’”
Lipscomb celebrated the ruling as a victory.
Seeing that the lawsuit would most likely be decided in favor of Lipscomb, lawyers from the Metro Legal Department recommended the $450,000 settlement — more than seven times his 2022 salary of $62,590, according to Metro records.
Of the settlement, $425,000 comes from Metro’s judgement and losses fund and $25,000 from the fire department. Lipscomb resigned as part of the agreement.
After the settlement, Lipscomb posted on Twitter, “The NashvilleFD punished me for speaking out against racism. I stood my ground, fought back, & won. I believe that the Black people who were attacked by firefighter’s hoses during the civil rights movement would be proud of today’s victory.”
Lipscomb had also been suspended for eight days in 2020 after harassing a small business owner, The Tennessean reported. He had made a prank phone call to Gigi Gaskins, owner of Nashville hat shop HatWRKS, for her support for President Donald Trump, recorded the conversation and posted it on his social media account.
Fire department spokesperson Joseph Pleasant told OpenTheBooks.com that the two policies were rescinded.
“On the advice of Metro Legal and with the approval of the Metro Nashville Council, the Nashville Fire Department has resolved the outstanding legal matter with former firefighter Joshua Lipscomb,” Pleasant said. “The NFD will continue to hold our personnel to the highest standards of conduct. The public puts their lives and the lives of their family members in our personnel's hands 24/7/365. NFD personnel will continue to focus on our mission to provide high-quality fire, medical, and rescue emergency responses to the residents and visitors within Nashville and Davidson County. This resolution is for the best of the NFD so we can continue serving our community with pride as we have since 1860.”
Representatives for Metro Council, which approved the settlement, didn’t respond to requests for comment.