A Lynchburg fire captain who has been criticized in recent months for posting controversial political cartoons on his Facebook page has filed a lawsuit against the city and multiple individual officials, alleging they violated his rights to free speech and religion.
The complaint was filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court by Lynchburg Fire Department Capt. Marty Misjuns in late March. The city, fire department, interim city manager, mayor and vice mayor are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims the city took adverse employment action against Misjuns because of political cartoons he reposted on his Facebook page. The cartoons, which local LGBTQ organizations and transgender members of the Lynchburg community said were transphobic, were posted in late January and included caricaturized illustrations of transgender women that leaned heavily on stereotypes.
On the Facebook page in question, Misjuns identifies himself as a “public figure” and as the Ward I chair of the Lynchburg City Republican Committee. The page is not run as a part of his fire department duties. It is open to public view and is separate from his other, personal Facebook page.
Misjuns repeatedly has defended the posts, and a news release sent out Monday by the Lynchburg law firm Fairchild & Yoder, representing Misjuns in the complaint, states Misjuns is a “devout Christian who holds a deeply held religious belief that God created humankind male and female.”
In the release, firm partner James Fairchild compares the city government to a “lynch mob,” saying it censored the speech and religious beliefs of one of its employees.
Misjuns seeks $450,000 in damages against the city, the department and other defendants, along with back pay plus interest and a list of injunctive actions.
The suit claims city officials conspired against him in retaliation for his expression of “free speech and religious beliefs,” and that he was subjected to an “interrogation” from Fire Chief Greg Wormser, with a focus on his Facebook posts.
It claims discrimination against Misjuns in stating that while Misjuns faced retaliation for “expressing deeply held religious views and political speech,” Wormser attended a “Black Lives Matter” protest in July in full uniform in violation of the city’s handbook.
Interim City Manager Reid Wodicka said Monday both he and Wormser were in attendance at that event, handing out masks in their official capacity with the city.
City Attorney Walter Erwin said it does not violate any code for a city official to be at a city event in uniform and engaging with the community. While he said public employees are not allowed to engage in partisan political activity in uniform, he reiterated the event was not a partisan political activity.
Wodicka said he could not comment on any punitive actions taken against Misjuns. Erwin said he was not aware of any action taken against Misjuns at this time.
The complaint says Wormser ordered Misjuns to attend an “interrogation” following the posts to discuss citizen complaints, many of them from Hill City Pride, a local LGBTQ organization, and informed him he was under investigation for social media statements making “political criticisms” of Mayor MaryJane Dolan. Wormser directed Misjuns not to discuss the issue outside of a short list of people, the lawsuit states.
Misjuns posted a petition in mid-March calling for Dolan to “denounce cancel culture or resign,” and the complaint states that Dolan, Wodicka and Vice Mayor Beau Wright conspired to deny his constitutional rights.
Regarding the lawsuit, Erwin said the city could not discuss litigation in a public setting, but the City Attorney’s Office would be making the “appropriate arrangements to handle the lawsuit” and file responses for all of the defendants.
“I would just point out that it’s very easy to make allegations in a lawsuit,” Erwin said. “It’s much different to actually be able to prove that they’re true.”
The complaint also contains references to incidents dating back to 2019 in which Misjuns felt he was passed over for training, promotions, pay raises and faced workplace discrimination and harassment from superior officers because of his political beliefs and position as a union representative with the local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
“Really what it comes down to is pretty simple: if government is going to start pointing fingers at people, they need to look at themselves first,” Misjuns said in a phone interview Monday with The News & Advance. “We are at ground zero right now when it comes to the fight for constitutional liberties, and if people that value individual liberties and freedom, and real, fair and equal treatment don’t start standing up for that, then the future is not looking so good.”
The defendants have 21 days to respond to the complaint.