DOVER, Del. — A former prison culinary instructor sued Delaware education officials in federal court Monday, claiming he was wrongfully fired for speaking about a deadly prison riot and hostage taking.
In the complaint, Anthony Stella claims state officials violated his free speech rights and breached the terms of his employment contract by terminating him without just cause.
“The defendants took action adverse against plaintiff as a direct and proximate result of and in retaliation for plaintiff’s First Amendment protected speech on matters of public concern,” Stella’s lawyers wrote.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Delaware Department of Education, Education Secretary Susan Bunting, and Sandra Waldee-Warden, a teaching supervisor at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.
Stella was working at Department of Correction’s maximum-security prison in Smyrna when inmates seized a building on Feb. 1, killing correctional officer Steven Floyd and taking three other staffers hostage. Two of the hostages were released during a standoff that lasted nearly 20 hours before police used a backhoe to breach a wall and rescue a female counselor.
With the prison on lockdown, Stella said he other prison workers could listen to hostage negotiations that were being broadcast over corrections officers’ radios and, as officials later discovered, could also be heard by the public over broadband radio.
After being confined to the prison for several hours, Stella was driving home when he received a call from a reporter with the News Journal of Wilmington and began speaking to him about his experiences that day as “a private citizen on a matter of public interest.” The interview was posted on the newspaper’s website later that night.
Stella also posted his thoughts about conditions at the prison on Facebook that same night but says he immediately deleted them after being contacted by a Department of Education supervisor.
“Plaintiff’s Facebook post was not an official communication concerning the prison education program on behalf of DOC or DOE but rather a statement by a private citizen on a matter of public concern,” the complaint states.
Stella nevertheless says he was notified in March that the DOE intended to terminate his employment for “misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty.” The notification said his actions violated the education department’s external communication policy, the Department of Correction’s public information and media policy, and the DOC’s code of conduct.
Stella says he was terminated by Bunting in April, and that a hearing officer upheld that decision on appeal in an August ruling.
Stella is seeking monetary damages, and an injunction ending what he describes as the illegal communications policies of the DOE and DOC.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.