A former Howard County fire officer is suing in federal court to get his job back, alleging that the county violated his rights by firing him for personal Facebook discussions about gun control, free speech and "liberal" politics.
Former Battalion Chief Kevin P. Buker, who worked for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services from 1997 until he was let go in March, contends that the county violated his First Amendment rights by prohibiting speech on public issues that did not interfere with his job performance.
Public employees in Maryland have been demoted and disciplined for online activities before, but lawyers who practice in the field said they knew of no similar cases here in which a government worker has been fired.
In a complaint filed last month in U.S. District Court, Buker's lawyers argued that the department "has never identified any disruption to the workplace that occurred as a result of any of Mr. Buker's aforementioned Facebook activities, or the responses to those activities by third parties, and no such disruptions occurred."
Buker — who according to the county was making $103,659 when he was fired — is asking to be reinstated and to be paid back salary, benefits, attorney fees and compensatory damages for "mental anguish and distress."
Edward S. Robson, Buker's lead lawyer, said the county made it "very clear" in his termination notice that "the reason they terminated him was because of the substance of his comments on Facebook," not because he was spending time on social media while on duty.
Howard County Solicitor Margaret Ann Nolan said in an email that "the employment action taken did not violate the law; the specific arguments in support of that defense will be set out in our written response filed in court."
She declined to elaborate but noted that the county has until Nov. 12 to file its formal response to the lawsuit.
One of two battalion chiefs in the 400-member department, Buker was on a 24-hour shift at the Ellicott City station Jan. 20 as the news of weeks before was filled with debate about gun control after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Using his personal Facebook page that did not identify him as a member of the county fire department, the court document says Buker posted: "My aide had an outstanding idea. ... Let's kill someone with a liberal ... then maybe we can get them outlawed too! Think of the satisfaction of beating a liberal with another liberal. ... Its almost poetic."
One of Buker's Facebook friends, Mark Grutzmacher, responded online, saying, "But ... was it an [assault] liberal'? Gotta pick a fat one, those are the 'high capacity' ones. Oh pick a black one, those are more 'scary.' Sorry, had to perfect on a cool idea!"
Buker "liked" Grutzmacher's comment, adding, "Too cool, Mark Grutzmacher."
In an interview, Robson said Grutzmacher's comment was not racial, but referred strictly to discussions in Congress about assault weapons that are black and have high-capacity ammunition clips. The county saw it differently, he said.
Buker's termination notice referred to the "racial overtones" of Grutzmacher's remark, which was characterized as "insensitive and derogatory in nature," Robson said.
According to the complaint, Grutzmacher, a volunteer firefighter, also was dismissed. Neither Buker nor Grutzmacher could be reached for comment.
On Assistant Chief John Jerome's order, Buker removed the original post Jan. 23, adding a comment on Facebook that he did so in response to instructions from his supervisor and to "prevent future 'butthurt,' " the complaint said.
That generated further comments, according to the complaint, including one that said Buker should be free to express himself so long as it wasn't about the fire department.
"Unfortunately, not in the current political climate," Buker responded. "Howard County, Maryland and the Federal Government are all Liberal Democrat held at this point in time. Free speech only applies to the liberals."
Buker was not at the fire station when he posted to Facebook on Jan. 23, according to county spokesman David Nitkin.
Two days later, Buker was moved out of field operations as the department conducted an investigation. Effective March 6, Buker was dismissed.