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WV Supreme Court: Former police lab director’s free speech not violated

By LACIE PIERSON

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Supreme Court last week affirmed a 2016 ruling that the former director of the West Virginia State Police forensic laboratory was not acting as a private citizen when she talked to legislators about issues at the lab in 2014.

In a 3-2 ruling issued Wednesday, the court affirmed the decision by Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster to dismiss a lawsuit from Soraya M. McClung, the former lab director, who claimed her right to free speech was violated when she was demoted at the forensic lab for sharing her concerns about conditions at the lab with lawmakers.

Chief Justice Allen Loughry and Justices Robin Jean Davis and Margaret Workman ruled to affirm Webster’s dismissal, and Justices Menis Ketchum and Beth Walker dissented.

In her original lawsuit, McClung claimed she was demoted from her director position to that of an analyst, which came with a pay cut. She resigned from the lab in 2015, and she since has taken a job at a lab in another state.

McClung said State Police officials violated her First Amendment rights as a private citizen when she was demoted.

An attorney for the State Police argued McClung was acting as a State Police employee, not a private citizen, when she collected information and presented that information to lawmakers, therefore limiting her First Amendment protection.

According to the ruling, McClung collected and provided information to a West Virginia senator during the 2014 legislative session regarding the possibility of removing the forensic crime lab from the organizational structure of the State Police and getting a pay raise for employees.

A bill to those ends was drafted during the session, but it did not become law.

According to the court’s ruling, McClung met with the senator and his staff and testified before legislative committees identifying herself as director of the lab, without permission from State Police officials.

When McClung met with State Police administrators after the session, she initially denied her involvement with the bill, but she later told officials she had provided information to lawmakers.

State Police officials said McClung subsequently was demoted because she lobbied for the restructuring and employee pay raises without knowledge or permission from police officials, according to the ruling.

McClung, who had worked at the lab for more than 20 years, filed a lawsuit in January 2015 against the State Police in Kanawha County, saying the demotion violated her right to free speech.

Webster dismissed the suit in August 2016, saying there had to be limitations on how people utilize information they learn within the scope of their employment.

Reach Lacie Pierson at [email protected], 304-348-1723 or follow @laciepierson on Twitter.

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