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Former chief deputy claims policy violates free speech

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The former chief deputy of the Clayton County Sheriff's Office is asking a federal court to declare some of the office's rules and regulations unconstitutional.

William "Tee" Cassells -- who was fired during a scandal involving overtime paid to choir members -- has filed a civil suit in United States District Court, alleging the policy forbidding comment to the media violated his right of free speech, a right protected by the first amendment to the United States Constitution.

Cassells was suspended from duty when Sheriff Victor Hill accused the 25-year veteran of paying choir members overtime, and then lying about it. When Hill announced the suspension, the chief deputy was in Ohio at a family funeral, and didn't know about the incident until a Clayton News Daily reporter called him on his cell phone.

During the conversation, Cassells said he knew nothing about the matter, didn't know why the sheriff would say that he had lied, and promised everything would be cleared up when he got back into town.

The phone conversation and the Clayton News Daily article quoting Cassells, was listed, in the internal investigations report, as one of the reasons the chief deputy was fired.

According to the 413-page internal affairs file, obtained by the Clayton News Daily, Cassells admitted he spoke to the reporter.

"I received a call from one of the reporters," he told an investigator, "and he said, 'Hey, is this thing going on between you and the sheriff, what, you know, how you feel it's going to turn out?' And I was like, 'What thing?' And he said, 'Well, the sheriff says you, that you lied to him or something.' And I said, 'No, I didn't lie to the sheriff and, you know, when this thing ends up, all this will be cleared up.'"

According to the sheriff's office, that conversation is one of the reasons Cassells was fired. Section 7.47, "Media Relations," in the office's rules and regulations, forbids all employees from speaking about anything relating to the office without prior approval from the sheriff.

Cassells' lawyer, Debra Schwartz, claims, in a federal civil suit filed early in November, that the regulation violates employees' constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech.

The suit, filed against Hill, the sheriff's office and the county, seeks to have the media rule declared unconstitutional.

The suit also asks to have Cassells returned to his position as chief deputy, and asks the sheriff's office to pay financial and emotional damages.

The suit asks that Hill be barred from speaking about his former second-in-command, alleging the sheriff publically libeled and defamed the chief deputy during the internal choir-pay investigation, the Cassells internal investigation and the chief deputy's firing.

Hill has publically stated that Cassells repeatedly lied, that he mismanaged funds, and was untrustworthy. The sheriff said it was a mistake to appoint the veteran to the second-in-command spot, and said he was correcting it by getting rid of Cassells.

The lawsuit claims Hill's statements were "false, defamatory and disparaging ... calculated to injure," intended to impeach Cassells character and expose him to "hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy." It also claims Hill made the statements "with knowledge that they were false ... with reckless disregard for the falsity."

Hill could not be reached for comment. His lawyers have not yet responded to the filed, federal suit.

Other local law enforcement agencies use similar language in their departmental policies forbidding unauthorized statements to the media.

The Forest Park Police Department, which is nationally accedited, has a regulation which states, "Unless authorized by the Chief of Police, Department employees are not authorized to make comment or provide written correspondence to the news media ... Employee speech, which relates to a matter of public concern, will be protected within the scope of the employee's constitutional rights, however, legitimate governmental interests will not be compromised."

In practice, the policies mean that a public information officer is designated, and all media calls are directed to the officer. Other officers do not speak, on the record, without the public information officer's approval.

In the sheriff's office, even the release of information about the presence of people in jail and the release of in-take mug shots must be approved by Hill.

It is not clear how Cassells' allegations of a constitutional violation could, or would, affect the other departments' media policies.

Cassells' lawyers are also fighting his firing on the county level, and intend to bring his case before the Civil Service Board, seeking his reinstatement. The case is expected to come before the board in January or February, Schwartz said.