By Kristen Hackbarth and Bob Conrad
Sparks Police Officer George Forbush has filed a lawsuit against the City of Sparks and several of its senior staff claiming they violated his First Amendment rights. He is seeking $1 million in compensatory damages along with an additional sum for general and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees, as reported by KRNV, news channel 4.
The lawsuit is in response to a four-day suspension Forbush received in 2020 following an investigation into controversial social media posts that were deemed vile and threatening by many in the community.
They said they were appalled by his commentary, which included transphobic comments, celebratory language about leftists and Black Lives Matter activists getting shot, and referring to women as bitches and pussies. He also congratulated an anonymous Twitter account — an account since removed for violating Twitter’s terms of service — for posting personal information about a leftist activist, something his lawsuit complains was done to him.
Screenshots of the Twitter posts were shared online, spurring a number of complaints to be filed with the Sparks Police Department.
“He had liked or shared numerous instances of police violence on his feed, and follows/interacts with several white supremacists and right-wing extremist accounts,” one complaint read. “I work in Sparks and to know this man is an officer in that jurisdiction turns my stomach and makes me very fearful for my own safety,” the complaint continued.
Forbush asserts that he was punished for speech made while off duty and as a private citizen, unrelated to his role as a police officer.
The Twitter account does not identify Forbush as a Sparks Police officer or city employee, but his tweets referenced working as a local law enforcement officer, and his Twitter bio originally referenced working as a “PD bomb tech” but was changed when he made his account private
The comments, however, appear to violate a number of Sparks Police policies, specifically policies prohibiting or limiting participation in controversial matters. Sparks Police prohibits off-duty conduct “which poses an unreasonable threat of danger to the public” or is “lewd or lascivious.”
Officers are also prohibited from demeaning or showing partiality toward anyone or organizations of protected status, such as race or gender, and from failing to “perform his official duties” or acting in a way that “could bring discredit upon him/herself, upon the department or upon any other member of the department.”
The lawsuit claims, however, that the City of Sparks “does not have a clear, consistent, and Constitutional policy regarding officers’ personal social media use.
The City’s disciplinary investigation confirmed that Officer Forbush made all the Twitter posts while off-duty, on his own time, as a private citizen, and that nowhere in the posts or on his Twitter feed did he identify himself as a Sparks police officer or ever claim to be speaking on behalf of the Sparks Police Department or any governmental agency,” the suit continues.
Sparks Police were mum on the results of their investigation into Forbush’s Tweets, but some details were revealed in the lawsuit. The complaint indicates that the City reviewed 700 of the officer’s Tweets and disciplined him for just four.
The disciplinary actions against him amounted to four days suspension, one for each of the four tweets.
His attorneys maintain “Officer Forbush is a good cop” whose beliefs “are mainstream views held by millions of people, including a majority of the citizens of Sparks.”
His four days of suspension, attorneys said, amount to $1 million in damages for “psychological and emotional harms,” lost wages and future employment prospects.
Forbush’s case is not dissimilar to another heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 28 of this year. That case involves the free speech rights of Pennsylvania cheerleader Brandi Levy who shared an expletive-laced post on Snapchat that earned her a one-year suspension from the team.
Levy and her father sued the school district for violating her First Amendment rights. At issue is whether off-campus, online speech can affect school order and result in a punishment.
Read the full Forbush lawsuit below.