Confederate Flag Costs Sergeant Her Job

Written on 09/02/2022
Will Aitchison

Sergeant Silvia Cotriss worked for the City of Roswell, Georgia. The City began investigating Cotriss when it received a complaint that she was flying a Confederate battle flag in her front yard, sometimes with her police cruiser present.

During the investigation, Cotriss admitted that there had been two Confederate-like flags separately displayed on a flagpole underneath an American flag at her home since 2015, sometimes when her police cruiser was visibly present. Cotriss explained that the first flag was purchased by her late husband and resembled a Confederate battle flag with a motorcycle emblem in the center – a flag representing a group of motorcyclists who partici­pated in “Bike Week.”

When this first flag became worn, Cotriss’s roommate removed it and, with Cotriss’s permission, replaced it with a new Confederate flag that the roommate received from a neighbor. Cotriss explained she viewed the flags as a way to honor her “Southern her­itage” and her late husband. At the time, the State of Georgia also flew the Confederate flag and other flags of the Confederate States of America at Stone Mountain Park.

After the investigation began, Cotriss removed her flag and returned her police cruiser. When the City still fired her, Cotriss filed a federal court lawsuit alleging that her termination violated her free speech rights. The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and upheld the termination.

The Court held that “although the law is well-established that the state may not demote or discharge a public employee in retaliation for speech protected under the first amendment, a public employee’s right to freedom of speech is not absolute. As a threshold matter, to qualify as constitutionally protected speech in the First Amendment government employment retaliation context, the speech must be made by a government employee speaking as a citizen and be on a subject of public concern. This is because the Constitution does not insulate a government employee’s communications from employer dis­cipline when a government employee makes statements pursuant to her official duties.

“We conclude that Cotriss’s rais­ing of the Confederate flag on her private property constituted speech made by a government employee acting as a citizen. To establish her free speech retaliation claim, Cotriss must show that: (1) her speech, as construed through the display of the Confederate battle flag, involved a matter of public concern; (2) her interest in the speech outweighed the City’s legitimate interest in the effective and efficient fulfillment of police department responsibilities and operations; and (3) her speech played a substantial part in the City’s decision to terminate her.

“Here, the Confederate battle flag is said to evoke the memory of their ancestors and other soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War. But to many others, it symbolizes slavery, seg­regation, and hatred. The City, then and now, has a clear interest in maintaining a favorable reputation with the public and in ensuring there are no disruptions within the police department.

“These interests could be impeded if members of the public, who have valid concerns about the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag, associate the police department with the flag. That was likely given that Cotriss had on some occasions flown the flag while a City police cruiser was parked in her yard. And, in this case, the City pointed to an actual complaint from a citizen about the flag’s display at Cotriss’s home and the flag’s perceived association with the police department, which, in turn, affected that person’s trust in the effectiveness of the City’s police force.

“Although the return of Cotriss’s police cruiser weakened the association between the flag and the police depart­ment, and Cotriss’s eventual removal of the flag eliminated any such association, the damage was done. The flag had been visible to the public for over a year before it was removed. And at least one resident observed and associated the police force with the flag to the point that the person complained. On balance and on this record, Cotriss’s speech could impede the police department’s ability to perform its public duties.

“Although Cotriss did not claim to fly the flag out of racial animus, the City’s interest in effective and efficient fulfilment of its police department operations outweighed Cotriss’s speech interest in displaying a Confederate flag, which she can still fly today as a private citizen.”

Cotriss v. City of Roswell, 2022 WL 2345729 (11th Cir. 2022).

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