When Davie fire Lt. Richard Stroes heard that a Parkland dad was suing a gun manufacturer over his daughter’s death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the firefighter took to Facebook to vent his rage. He called Fred Guttenberg a “scumbag,” accusing him of trying to “profit” off the loss of his child.
It wasn’t long before the fire department found out. Soon, Stroes had been demoted, which meant a pay cut. The town cited concerns the Facebook post might become “a significant source of embarrassment and public turmoil in this department and for the town.”
Now the 14-year veteran is suing the Broward County municipality, claiming his First Amendment rights have been violated.
“This case is much bigger than Richard Stroes,” reads the complaint, which was filed last week in federal court by attorney Freddy Perera. “Much bigger than an employment dispute. And, much more important than its financial implications. This case is about the government’s use of its dangerous mute button.”
A spokeswoman for the town said she couldn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit.
But Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter was among the 17 students and school staff shot to death during the Valentine’s Day mass shooting, told New Times it’s unfortunate that a person in a position of public trust would characterize him that way.
At the same time, he says he’s become accustomed to online vitriol since becoming a prominent advocate for gun control. “I live every second with this image of my daughter running down that hallway,” Guttenberg says. “I’ll never get that out of my head. And that to me is what bothers me, you know? The fear and anxiety that she had is what bothers me. People think they can hurt me with words? Come on.”
Stroes isn’t the only government employee to find himself in hot water over a post about Parkland. About a week after the shooting, an aide to Florida Rep. Shawn Harrison was fired after spreading conspiracy theories about Stoneman Douglas students David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez.
In April, North Miami Beach Police Officer Ericson Harrell was assigned to desk duty after ranting on Facebook about shooting survivors being paid actors involved in a false-flag operation. And in May, Coral Springs Officer Brian Valenti was suspended after posting that he hoped someone might run over Hogg.
Stroes wrote the Facebook post that led to his demotion sometime in May, about a month after he was promoted to lieutenant, according to his complaint. He ultimately removed the post after speaking with a Parkland teacher. He says a coworker with a “personal vendetta” against him brought it to the town’s attention.
After that, Fire Chief Julie Downey wrote in a letter of demotion that Stroes’ actions were “so contrary to what I expect from any fire official in this department that the only position you may remain employed in at this time is that of a firefighter.” The demotion knocked Stroes’ salary from $96,130.69 annually to $83,040.92.
In the complaint, Stroes argues that because no one picketed, marched, or waved signs outside the fire department, the post didn’t cause any turmoil. He says he was writing as a citizen on his own time about a matter of public interest.
He argues that a sense of “embarrassment” is not “a legitimate reason for muzzling an employee’s speech,” and says he’s decided to sue because his First Amendment rights are “too important to him” to stay quiet.
The complaint also says he “regrets the way he framed the issue.”
But Guttenberg says that unlike blurting something out, “when somebody’s angry enough at me to call me a scumbag online, that takes thought… I wish local people who lived through this experience with us would be a little bit understanding about why I do what I do. But that’s the funny thing about social media — people pop off, and they don’t care about the consequences.”