A veteran sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department is suing the department and its chief for allegedly violating his right to free speech by disciplining him for off-duty social media posts concerning the “glorification” of gang violence in songs by the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, and other issues.
Sgt. Joel Sydanmaa, a 24-year-LAPD veteran, contends he was wrongly disciplined for “misconduct” consisting of expressing his opinions, as a private citizen, while off-duty, on his personal social media accounts, about matters of public concern, according to the suit filed late Monday alleging retaliation for exercise of First Amendment rights.
An LAPD spokesman said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
According to the complaint, Sydanmaa was disciplined three times for separate posts on Hussle, the allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and how Japan deals with the practice of Islam. In separate proceedings, the department imposed a one-day suspension and official reprimands.
In each instance, Sydanmaa made clear online that he is speaking for himself, not the department, the suit states, and adds that he was posting on his own time from his Orange County home.
“At no time did the account or any of Sgt. Sydanmaa’s statements thereon ever purport to be official statements by the LAPD or statements in (his) capacity as an LAPD officer,” according to the 45-page lawsuit filed in Los Angeles federal court.
“Sgt. Sydanmaa’s statements on the account were always and entirely his personal views, opinions, and comments, in his capacity as a private citizen, on matters of public concern,” the suit states “The Instagram account’s home page contains a prominent disclaimer stating expressly that the statements and opinions expressed are solely his personal opinions, and not those of any government agency.”
In his April 2019 post about Hussle — who was murdered a month earlier after being shot multiple times by an attacker in South Los Angeles — Sydanmaa wrote that “the bottom line is that he chose the lifestyle that ultimately killed him and it wasn’t the `great guy’ lifestyle that so many (people) are making it out to be now that he’s gone.”
The post drew over 1,300 comments, many of them insulting Sydanmaa personally, according to the lawsuit.
One commenter wrote: “No wonder so many gangbangers want to kill y’all, y’all just shouldn’t show up, for everyone’s safety.” Sydanmaa responded sarcastically: “Here’s an idea. Next time you need help, call a Crip, not 911.”
The LAPD initiated a disciplinary process against Sydanmaa, who asserted his constitutional right to speak while off-duty as a private citizen on matters of public concern, the suit said. Nonetheless, he was handed a one-day suspension.
“A public employee simply cannot be subjected to discipline or retaliation consistent with our Constitution, for the statement Sgt. Sydnanmaa made about Nipsey Hussle,” the suit contends. “The LAPD cannot take the position that expression of opinions praising Mr. Hussle is allowed, but expression of opinions criticizing Mr. Hussle is prohibited and subject to discipline. Yet that is exactly what the LAPD has done.”
In a 2018 post, Sydanmaa summarized the public allegations made by three accusers that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted one or more young women when in high school or college. Sydanmaa concluded by writing that “considering these circumstances, there’s no way that Kavanaugh can be proven guilty. Sooooo?”
An anonymous person filed a complaint with the department, alleging that Sydanmaa was “actively engaging in the shaming of multiple women who came forward with allegations,” the lawsuit states.
After a hearing, the department imposed an official reprimand, according to the suit.
Following the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attack in Paris carried out by the Islamic State group, Sydanmaa saw a post on Facebook that was being widely shared at the time about how Japan “keeps Islam at bay by putting restrictions on Islam and all Muslims.” Sydanmaa reposted it on his own account, thinking it was worthy of further discussion, the suit states.
“He is not an expert on Japanese law or culture, but he knew that unlike many other countries, Japan has not been the target of radical Islamic terrorist attacks,” the lawsuit said. “He hoped to engage in discussions about an issue of obvious grave public importance (and) re-posted the Japan post on his Instagram page.”
Shortly after Sydanmaa’s reposting, two employees of the Council on American-Islamic Relations wrote to then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, demanding that Beck “identify and discipline” the officer behind the Instagram account.
“The complainants did not know who the account belonged to, did not suggest that the account purported to be or appeared to be statements of the LAPD, or was anything other than what it was: the private speech of a citizen on matters of public concern,” the suit states.
After a disciplinary process against Sydanmaa, the department initially proposed a penalty of a 22-day suspension without pay. The officer — who was at that time battling cancer — contested the penalty and ultimately accepted a reduced penalty of another official reprimand.
The lawsuit states that Sydanmaa has received more than 120 commendations, been awarded the Police Medal for Heroism, and is “devoted to the job, the people he protects, and the younger officers he mentors.” He fought through a cancer diagnosis, and instead of retiring, came back to the job, the suit states.
“In his 24-plus years with the department, he’s never done anything improper on the job,” according to the lawsuit.
Sydanmaa alleges that he was disciplined because his opinions “run counter to the department’s preferred political stance.”
According to the suit, the LAPD permits and encourages officers to have online accounts, but does not have a clear, consistent social media policy. Instead, the department has taken the position that “an officer’s off-duty social speech as a private citizen on matters of public concern can subject him to discipline, if his viewpoint doesn’t slant the right way,” the suit alleges.
“That is wrong, and it violates the Constitution,” according to the document. “A public employer may not discipline or retaliate against its employees for the content of their political speech as private citizens on matters of public concern.”
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