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WEDNESDAY, May 1 — A black Lansing firefighter who is suing the city for alleged racial discrimination at the Lansing Fire Department said he was suspended for two weeks without pay for a Facebook post that criticized Mayor Andy Schor.
Fire Chief Michael Mackey declined to comment Tuesday and advised City Pulse to file a request under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act for additional details.
The firefighter, Michael Lynn Jr., said Tuesday that Assistant Fire Chief Michael Tobin called him into his office Monday and delivered the suspension notice. His punishment, however, was postponed while Lynn and his lawyer, Scott Battey, push back against the decision with the firefighters’ union.
“All he was doing was expressing his views,” Battey explained. “This is clear retaliation. He was suspended without pay for expressing his own political beliefs and his own personal experiences on social media. That's exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect: Political speech and political ideas. It’s insane.”
Lynn’s post went up on April 14. It shows photos of Schor and African Americans that appear as part of a new marketing campaign on the Fire Department’s Facebook page. Schor was tagged in the post, which included a sharp critique of the city’s recent efforts to highlight the diversity among its ranks. It’s all talk, Lynn contended.
“White liberals want diversity and inclusion until the black man walks in the room. Then it’s back to the same old shit,” Lynn posted to Facebook. “White men don’t get to choose what diversity and inclusion looks like.”
Lynn filed a discrimination suit against the city in U.S. District Court in January. It alleges a pattern of racial discrimination and retaliation after a banana was found on the windshield of his assigned fire truck. Lynn contended the 2016 incident was an act of deliberate discrimination against him and another black firefighter.
After City Pulse published a series of stories that reported on various claims of racism within the Fire Department and the mayor’s subsequent steps to hire additional minority candidates, the city launched a new marketing campaign to highlight its diversity. Several black firefighters were prominently featured online.
Lynn, who also claimed the department has long fostered a culture of bigotry among employees, still doubts the efficacy of the mayor’s efforts to diversify its ranks, including plans for a cadet program to attract a broader applicant pool. And Lynn has only one word to describe the recent social media campaign: propaganda.
“They want to make the department seem diverse by posting a bunch of pictures of minorities,” Lynn said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I wanted to make the statement that it’s not going to fix the problem.”
Schor caught criticism earlier this year after City Pulse reported that the 2018 class of firefighters included no African Americans or women. That resulted from a policy change that prioritized licensed paramedics rather than offer on-the-job training to EMTs. Diversity was sacrificed amid concerns over a shortage of paramedics.
That eventually led to criticism of Schor by former Fire Chief Randy Talifarro, an African American who was a carryover from former Mayor Virg Bernero’s administration. Talifarro contended the prior administration, instead, trained lower-ranking EMTs on the job in an effort to expand opportunities for minority candidates.
Asked for comment Tuesday, Schor said he recognizes a need for diversity and the First Amendment rights of city employees. But he said they must also follow policies — including a mandate to refrain from putting up disparaging social media posts while representing the city. Punishments are spelled out in collective bargaining agreements.
“If he did a post, he can say what he wants on his own time,” Schor explained. “If he posted representing the city or if he did it on city time and it was not appropriate, that likely violates our Internet use policy.”
Schor said the Human Resources Department handles workplace policy violations and that he was not involved.
Responded Lynn: “I said all of this from a position of a citizen of Lansing and a registered voter, not as a firefighter. I didn’t say this as a person who works for the department, but they pulled out probably six or seven policies against me on this one. Of course, they’re targeting me. This could add up to about $2,500 in lost pay.”
Battey said the recent suspension notice will also be used as part of the ongoing federal lawsuit against the city.
“He's saying the mayor has done nothing to stop racism in the department, and that's his belief,” Battey added. “He’s entitled to voice his beliefs without retaliation. That’s really the purpose in the First Amendment.”