Usual Suspects

Jail guard wins First Amendment rights victory in press case

By Francisco P. Riggs

TOUTED BY SOME as a victory for public employees, a Sonoma County Jail guard has won an unusual free-speech suit after he angered county employers with his harsh criticism of articles published in this newspaper.

The 1st District Court of Appeals in San Francisco has now reversed an earlier decision by Sonoma County Superior Court and has ruled that top brass at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department were wrong to reprimand correctional officer Jeff DiCello for his letter lambasting articles by the Sonoma County Independent that questioned jail conditions.

The bitter clash between DiCello and Sonoma County Sheriff Jim Piccinini began in 1998 after the Independent published a two-part investigative series on medical conditions and alleged inmate abuse at the county jail.

DiCello was so incensed by the series that he shot off a scathing letter to the newspaper blasting editor Greg Cahill and reporter Paula Harris, who together authored the series, which went on to win the 1999 Sonoma County Press Club’s Lincoln Steffens Award for best investigative reporting in Northern California.

Instead of addressing the in-custody deaths, inmate suicides, and alleged poor medical treatment examined in the series, DiCello, who identified himself as “a jail employee,” chose to fill his letter with personal attacks on the two reporters. The letter was then published, with ensuing embarrassment for Sheriff’s Department officials.

“So, Greg and Paula, relax,” DiCello’s stated in his letter. “You two are never going to be mistaken for Woodward and Bernstein. Go home, kick off your Birkenstocks, and rent All the President’s Men again and wish mommy and daddy had the money to send you to real journalism school so you could write for a real newspaper. Instead, they were too busy smoking weed and working for the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in the summer of love! I bet they even met each other when they came in for a VD test.”

THE SHERIFF’S Department immediately set up an internal investigation into whether DiCello had authored the allegedly offensive letter. Piccinini later issued DiCello a formal letter of reprimand, noting that DiCello’s letter contained “inappropriate and unprofessional comments” toward the two reporters. “In making those comments, you brought discredit not only to yourself but to the department you work for,” it stated, adding, “Public statements need to be consistent with public policy.”

In retaliation, DiCello filed a suit against Piccinini, correctional Sgt. John Pels, Asst. Sheriff Sean McDermott, and the county of Sonoma, claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated.

The Independent subsequently ran an editorial defending DiCello’s right to criticize the press.

Last year, the Sonoma County Superior Court ruled that sarcastic portions of the letter could be considered separately and were not constitutionally protected speech and noted that Piccinini was within his rights to discipline DiCello.

This week, the 1st District Court of Appeals reversed the lower-court decision, ruling that DiCello’s entire letter was protected speech and did not affect the department’s operations.

However, DiCello isn’t back at work making his bosses eat crow. According to sheriff’s officials, the outspoken jail guard is currently on long-term disability for a job-related injury.

From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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