Two top Howard County sheriff's deputies who were fired because they engaged in Nazi mimicry on the job for years are challenging their dismissal on grounds that their First Amendment right to free speech was violated.
Maj. Donald Pruitt and Sgt. Dennis Pruitt Jr., 40-year-old twins, also argue in a lawsuit challenging their Feb. 6 firing that they were denied equal protection of the law guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.
The brothers maintain that "many other members of the Howard County Sheriff's Department who engaged in the same actions as the Pruitts were not charged or punished for their actions."
A trial board found the deputies guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and recommended that they be demoted one rank, fined $200 and given sensitivity training. Sheriff Michael Chiuchiolo rejected that recommendation and fired them.
The deputies' suit also challenges the sheriff's right to dismiss them and the trial board's findings.
It argues that the trial board's recommendation was final because of the circumstances under which the charges were filed against the deputies by former Sheriff Herbert Stonesifer, who was defeated in last fall's primary election.
Since the sheriff who filed the charges was an eyewitness to the actions, under state law only a trial board may impose punishment, the suit argues.
In addition, the suit contends that the trial board's findings were "arbitrary, capricious and not supported by substantial evidence." The former deputies are asking for an emergency hearing to stay their firing, pending the outcome of their appeal, saying they will suffer "irreparable injury from loss of pay and benefits, damage to credit rating and damage to reputation."
Mark H. Bowen, assistant attorney general representing the county sheriff in the case, said the Nazi mimicry "was not entitled to First Amendment protection by the nature of the speech and physical conduct" of the two former deputies.
Mr. Bowen added that many of the other arguments the Pruitts raise in their suit -- including equal protection -- were "disposed of in motions before the trial board so there is not much new in what they are raising."
He added that he will oppose any stay because the sheriff had good reason for firing the Pruitts.