Anthony Venable, who had been an officer with the Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County Police Department (MNPD) since 2007, engaged in a Facebook conversation regarding the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota. At the time, Venable was off-duty and the shooting had happened just the day before.
During the course of the conversation, Venable posted a number of comments, including:
- “Yeah, I would have done 5,” in response to a comment that Castile was shot four times.
- “You don’t shoot just one. If I use my weapon, I shoot to kill and stop the threat.”
- “It’s real and it’s what every cop is trained to do. Move to Mexico.”
- “There ARE bad cops!!! NO one is sitting here saying every cop is a good one. Ha. Why are you not talking about how many white people are killed by cops every day!?!?!?!? You are given statistics that more whites are killed by cops than blacks yet you still stay on the issue of feeling sorry for blacks or only post if a black is involved. You’re blind”
- “Obviously he would smell it [the odor of marijuana]. Watch the video. The woman even says oh and we have weed in the car. Lol you don’t know facts and you don’t know police work You sit on the outside and judge what you only see not what you KNOW. If you want to see how it is you get your ASS up and strap on a vest and 25lbs of gear and you go out and put your pretty little life on the line every f***king day.”
- “Stop bitching about the people who protect you.”
One participant in the Facebook conversation warned Venable that he could be in “serious trouble” based on the “grossly unprofessional” statements. Another expressed the hope that Venable’s comments not “go viral.” Both comments proved prescient.
In posting his comments, Venable did not state he was an MNPD officer. Nevertheless, within minutes of the postings the Department received a complaint about Venable from one of the participants in the conversation. An hour later, a Chamber of Commerce board member filed his own complaint. The Department immediately relieved Venable of duty and began an investigation.
When the Civil Service Commission upheld his termination, Venable appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. His primary argument was that his Facebook comments were protected by the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment.
The Court rejected Venable’s appeal. The Court found that “there can be no doubt that Venable’s statements touched on matters of public concern. He was discussing his personal views about police officers and the dangers they face. However, law enforcement officials often have legitimate and powerful interests in regulating speech by their employees.
“It may well be that Venable did not intend that his posts be taken seriously, but they were. Not only did one participant in the discussion warn him about the tenor of his remarks, another expressed the hopes that the remarks would not spread. Within minutes MNPD was informed about the posts by at least two other individuals who did not find them humorous.
“The speed with which citizens complained to the MNPD also undercuts Venable’s suggestion that he should not be held accountable because he did not identify himself as a Nashville police officer. He made the postings under his real name, and the postings clearly suggested that the poster was a police officer. It could not have surprised Venable that a rudimentary search on the internet would reveal that the ‘Anthony Venable’ in Nashville making the posts was a MNPD officer.
“This Court has no hesitation in concluding that the MNPD could reasonably predict that Venable’s comments would be disruptive to its mission and affect officer morale. The comments were made directly in response to a police shooting at a time when police shootings were a hot topic of debate among members of the public and the subject of nationwide protests. Making matters worse, the comments came on the very day that the Chief asked that the citizens of Nashville not judge its police officers by actions of police in other departments, and pointed out that officers shoot to kill only as a matter of last resort. At a minimum, Venable’s postings could be viewed as undercutting or contradicting the Chief.”
Venable v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson County, 2019 WL 7020353 (M.D. Tenn. 2019).