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DNR spokeswoman sues agency over demotion, alleges free-speech violation

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is suing the agency after she says she was demoted following a Facebook comment that bashed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous. But the department’s communications director says no such demotion ever happened.

The complaint, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for Maryland, alleges that DNR secretary Mark Belton violated spokeswoman Candy Thomson’s First Amendment rights when he demoted her after she made a comment via her personal Facebook account about Jealous.

The agency’s communications director, Stephen Schatz, said Thomson “has not been declassified, demoted or suspended” and “remains an active and current employee of the Office of Communications with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.”

He added that Thomson had submitted her resignation from state service in July, and it goes into effect Nov. 6. The department is now recruiting for her position.

“The department looks forward to clarifying and correcting the record when it goes before the judge in November,” Schatz said.

According to court documents, Thomson commented on a post about Jealous on the Facebook page of her friend, Daily Record reporter Bryan Sears.

The post criticized Jealous for barring a reporter from The (Hagerstown) Herald-Mail from his debate with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. On Sept. 17, Thomson replied to the post with a single word: “a--clown,” according to the lawsuit. She posted the comment at about 5 a.m. at home using her personal iPad, according to the suit.

The lawsuit says she was commenting as a citizen, not a DNR employee.

Thomson removed the comment after receiving a call from DNR police Col. Robert Ziegler about the post.

On Sept. 20, two other DNR police commanders were instructed by Schatz, to take over Thomson’s media duties, according to the lawsuit. She said she was not informed until Sept. 21 that she had been stripped of her duties.

Thomson has worked for the DNR for about five years and spent 40 years as a news reporter, including 25 years with The Baltimore Sun.

She is asking the court to declare that her First and 14th Amendment rights were violated, prohibit the DNR from punishing her and reinstate her media duties. The lawsuit also seeks court costs and fees for attorneys.

A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1.

James Astrachan, an attorney representing Thomson, and Jealous campaign spokesman Jerusalem Damsas declined to comment for this article. The Hogan campaign and Hogan’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

smeehan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahvmeehan

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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