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Former Johnston detective vindicated in free-speech lawsuit settlement

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Johnston police active investigation

Boston Red Sox’s Rafael Devers, second from left, is congratulated by teammates after hitting a grand slam against the New York Yankees during the first inning of a baseball game, Saturday, June 30, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Civil liberties advocates this week are celebrating the settlement of a free-speech lawsuit tied to a Johnston police detective who was disciplined for speaking to a reporter in 2016.

U.S. District Judge Mary McElroy on Wednesday signed the settlement, mandating that the Johnston Police Department pay now-retired Det. James Brady nearly $500 in lost pay and remove any related disciplinary records from his personnel file. The Police Department must also revoke a media-relations policy that McElroy determined violates the First Amendment.

The terms of the settlement were hailed by free-speech advocates.

“The outcome in this case sends a clear message to officials that sanctioning employees for speaking out on matters of public concern is an abuse of government power and a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said in a statement.

The underlying dispute began in September 2016 when Brady granted an interview with The Providence Journal’s former reporter Jacqueline Tempera. The newspaper published a story including his comments regarding a former officer who was suing the department and its former Police Chief Richard Tamburini, alleging he’d been unlawfully fired.

Brady, who spoke favorably about the fired officer and critically of the department, offered his comments as president of the Local 307 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. Regardless, Tamburini slapped Brady with disciplinary action, including “conduct unbecoming an officer,” for discussing the personnel issue with the reporter, according to court records.

Brady was suspended for two days.

The ACLU of Rhode Island and its attorney Elizabeth Wiens subsequently sued Tamburini and Johnston on behalf of Brady. The advocacy group argued in court that the departmental policy and actions violated Brady’s free speech rights.

McElroy largely agreed, ruling in February the departmental action against Brady was “an unconstitutional effort to stifle protected speech that any reasonable superior officer should have understood violated First Amendment Rights.”

The Johnston Police Department, which must pay Brady’s legal costs of $57,624, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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