NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A pro-Trump lawyer, fired from a state job in a pro-Trump state for repeating pro-Trump talking points, is fighting back.
Jerry Morgan was fired by the state board that regulates lawyers when his controversial tweets became public, and the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility has notified Morgan that it is also investigating whether he should face sanctions as a lawyer.
Now, Morgan has filed a federal lawsuit that accuses the board and its chief disciplinary counsel, Sandy Garrett, of violating his civil rights.
“I was terminated solely based on my political speech,” Morgan told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"If the board were to sanction an attorney simply for expressing himself politically, then the board could go after any attorney in this state for whatever the board felt was objectionable, and that the board is not authorized to do that.”
Morgan has been employed by the Board of Professional Responsibility since February 2019 with primary responsibility for arguing lawyer ethics cases before the state’s appellate courts, including the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The lawsuit says that the state Board of Professional Responsibility terminated Morgan in December 2020 after an attorney under investigation filed a motion that accused Morgan of being an “extreme anti-Muslim bigot” and argued that Morgan might be biased against the attorney whose wife is Muslim.
That motion, which sought to disqualify Morgan from participating in that one case, cited a number of tweets from Morgan, many posted during the 2016 and 2020 presidential election campaigns.
Among them, tweets in which he said:
- Trump was “talking about the #1 issue of our time – stopping Muslims. Everybody better wake up!”
- “Where’s the evidence that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’? They’ve gone to war against every society they’ve encountered for 1000s of years.”
- “When someone kills an abortion provider … he is soundly condemned. By Christians. Muslims don’t do the same.”
- “Siding with Obama in a fight involving Muslims means you’re on the wrong side.”
Those tweets mirrored comments by candidate -- and, later, president -- Trump himself.
In other tweets, Morgan argued that African-Americans had thrived economically under Trump, but “Democrats don’t want record high employment among minorities. They need them caught in a ‘slave’ mentality.”
Those comments parallel statements by some African-American conservatives.
But, in a Dec. 11, 2020, memo, the human resources manager for the Board of Professional Responsibility told Morgan that the board’s disciplinary counsel have “a duty to protect the public … without discrimination or bias.”
“We acknowledge and respect your right to free speech,” HR Manager Stephanie Holliday wrote. “However, your speech has adversely impacted your ability to successfully perform your job duties.”
"That's completely false," he told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"It had never affected my job duties up to that point. In 17 years, I've never been accused of any ethical violation, and there's no one at the board that could tell you any differently.
"My work for the board was exemplary."
Then, on March 1st, Morgan’s former boss, Sandy Garrett, notified him that the board had opened an investigation “concerning your conduct,” although the motion referencing Morgan’s tweets never alleged that he had taken any improper actions in the case before him.
Morgan, in the interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates, insisted he has never shown any bias against Muslim individuals.
“In fact, I have worked with Muslims in Romania that were fleeing their country of Syria, fleeing terrorism,” he argued.
“I worked with them, teaching them English, helping them acclimate to Western culture. I have no animosity towards Muslims, in general, at all. My position was dealing with Islamic terrorism."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed up, "When you look back at the tweets, do you understand why some people would find them to be objectionable?"
"Of course," Morgan answered.
“These are matters of intense public debate, and the beauty of the First Amendment is that all sides have the right to express themselves in a public forum on matters of public concern.”
Morgan’s lawyer, Democratic activist Gary Blackburn, argues in the lawsuit that "a public employee has a First Amendment right to speak on maters of public importance and that such protected speech may not lawfully form the basis for dismissal from public employment."
The lawsuit notes that many of Morgan's tweets pre-dated his state employment.
“The fact that I disagree with his views has to be put in the context of the fact that most Tennesseans agreed with him,” Blackburn said. “This state was overwhelmingly carried by Mr Trump, twice. These are his views basically."
Blackburn insisted that his client has an unequivocal right to make such comments.
Asked why he believes the Board of Professional Responsibility terminated his client, Blackburn paused.
"I don't like using this term -- he was canceled.
"His views were so disagreeable to some people that they imagined that it would interfere with his ability to do a job despite the fact that he did not up to that point. And I think there's an element there of what's often called ‘cancel culture.’"
NewsChannel 5 has reached out to Sandy Garrett and the Board of Professional Responsibility for comment, but no response had been received at the time of this posting.