ST. LOUIS • A woman who criticized police on Twitter says an officer called her boss in an attempt to get her fired, so she filed a formal complaint “to return the favor.”
The officer doesn’t deny placing a call to the woman’s boss. His union says he was within his rights. The police department says it is investigating.
Leigh Maibes, a real estate agent who tweets under the alias “Short Stack” and has been active on social media during the Ferguson protests, posted a link Wednesday to a YouTube video of a phone conversation with Officer Keith Novara.
During the conversation, Maibes questions why Novara called and texted her boss regarding her involvement and Twitter posts about police tactics used during protests.
“To me this feels like intimidation,” said Maibes, who sells real estate for a RE/MAX brokerage on South Hampton Avenue. No one there responded to a message seeking comment.
Novara is heard saying, “I let them know, yes.”
Novara says that he was giving the broker a “heads up” and communicating with him as part of his responsibilities as a South Patrol officer. Novara adds that he was warning Maibes’ boss that the phones at the business might be “blowing up,” from people upset about her tweets.
“Why did you think it was your place to do that?” Maibes asks.
“Some of the tweets that I was seeing were inciteful,” Novara said. “That’s why I just wanted to let him know.”
It’s unclear what tweets were of particular concern.
Maibes did not respond to multiple messages on Twitter seeking comment. Novara also did not return a voice message left on his cellphone.
Within hours of the posting of the video, other Twitter users posted Novara’s cell number, photo and email address.
On Thursday, Novara had retained lawyer Neil J. Bruntrager through the St. Louis Police Officers Association. The police department confirmed that Novara was under investigation. He has not been suspended.
Bruntrager said he was unaware of any other case in which an officer had called a protester’s employer.
The association’s business manager, Jeff Roorda, claimed in a statement Thursday that Novara’s speech was protected under the First Amendment and that he was only “setting the record straight on public statements made by people spreading irresponsible lies and calling for violence against the police.”
But whether the officer’s phone call to Maibes’ boss truly falls under the rights guaranteed by the Constitution is a matter of debate.
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director for the ACLU of Missouri, said that the First Amendment limits government restrictions on free speech, but not necessarily how employers regulate employees’ speech.
As for Maibes’ right to speak out, Mittman suggested that it would be improper for Novara to interfere in his capacity as a police officer. On the video, Novara appears to indicate that he was.
“If a government actor is retaliating against someone who is engaged in First Amendment activity, that is not lawful,” Mittman said.
Maibes notes on the video that she has interacted with Novara before, to resolve issues where she lives in the Dutchtown neighborhood. She asks him why he was calling her boss’s office on Hampton Avenue, more than three miles away.
“I deal with all the businesses in South Patrol,” Novara says.
Alan J. Howard, a professor emeritus at the St. Louis University School of Law, said it doesn’t appear that Novara “was trying to participate in some public debate.”
“It seems like he said, ‘I was wearing my police officer’s hat when I made that phone call,’” Howard said. “That actually hurts his case.”