Court upholds firing of Cleveland EMS captain who wrote that he wished he’d shot Tamir Rice
"[The city] had an overriding interest in preserving the public’s trust in Cleveland EMS’s capacity to serve the public,” Appeals Judge Chad Readler wrote
By Adam Ferrise
CLEVELAND — A federal appeals panel on Wednesday upheld the firing of a Cleveland EMS captain over offensive online posts he made about the 2014 fatal police shooting of Tamir Rice.
The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the city’s firing of Jamie Marquardt did not violate Marquardt’s First Amendment right to free speech, upholding a district judge’s ruling.
Appeals judges Chad Readler, John Bush and Ronald Gilman decided the case unanimously.
“Although we acknowledge the many freedoms that the First Amendment guarantees, in this unique circumstance, [the city] had an overriding interest in preserving the public’s trust in Cleveland EMS’s capacity to serve the public,” Readler wrote.
Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer reached out to Marquardt’s attorney, William Livingston, for comment.
City spokeswoman Marie Zickefoose said in a statement the city is “grateful” that the firing was upheld.
“Mayor [ Justin] Bibb and City leaders are committed to building a culture of service, respect, and accountability,” the statement said.
The city fired Marquardt in 2016 after he made two Facebook posts about the fatal shooting of Rice, which touched off days of protests in Cleveland. The city later settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Tamir’s family for $6 million.
Marquardt’s posts in February 2016 referred to Tamir as a “felony hood rat” and said “I am glad he is dead.” Another said “I wish I was in the park that day as he terrorized innocent patrons by pointing a gun at them walking around acting bad.” Another post stated “I am upset I did not get the chance to kill the little criminal f----r.”
Marquardt, who was hired by the city in 1991, denied making the posts, and said a friend named Donnie used Marquardt’s phone to author the posts. Marquardt later deleted the posts and put up a new one disavowing the previous ones.
During arbitration, which Marquardt lost, he refused to give Donnie’s last name so he could be questioned. An arbitrator called Marquardt’s version of events “implausible.”
Marquardt sued the city, claiming his rights were violated and that the city’s social media policy was unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver initially agreed with Marquardt about the social media policy, but not that his rights had been violated. The Sixth Circuit in 2020 overturned Oliver’s decision and sent the case back to to the district court. Oliver then upheld the firing and also ruled the social media policy to be constitutional.
The Sixth Circuit judges said the case was a balance between Marquardt’s right to free speech and the city’s need to maintain trust in its functions.
Reader wrote that Marquardt made the posts days after a new controversy emerged over the shooting— that EMS billed the Rice family for transporting him from the scene of the shooting to the hospital. The story became national news and ignited new criticism of the city.
“At the time of the posts, in other words, the Rice shooting had not faded from the public eye, or the public’s ire,” Reader wrote. “And in the midst of that uneasy atmosphere, Marquardt’s posts prompted co-workers to express their concerns to supervisors and sparked a critical statement from the Cleveland NAACP President that ran in the local news.”
The appeals judges also concluded that the city’s interest in preventing disintegration of public trust, along with co-workers’ need to work with Marquardt following the posts, outweighed Marquardt’s interests.
“An EMS Captain in the very division that transported Rice (a twelve-year-old shot by the police) to the hospital called the boy a ‘ghetto rat’ and expressed a desire to have been the one to kill him,” Reader wrote. “These comments were made in the wake of a gripping national media storm that had reignited just days earlier. In instances like this, where ‘close working relationships are essential to fulfilling public responsibilities’ like the emergency medical services at issue here, we should cede to the employer’s decision.”