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    FDLE worker protests punishment for shirt's message


    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- Fed up with the way she was being treated at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Essie Rollins did something not many employees would have the nerve to do.

    "FDLE has punished me illegally," she wrote in black marker on the back of a light gray T-shirt.

    "Who is next," she wrote on the front.

    On Sept. 15 -- a casual dress day -- she wore the shirt at the office.

    "I own the T-shirt and I got a right to let the world know I'm in pain," Rollins said Thursday.

    That's not the way the state's top law enforcement agency sees it.

    The incident caused quite a stir at agency headquarters in the state capital. Rollins, 46, was ordered to go home and change. She refused. She was placed on leave for 20 days and told to surrender her FDLE credentials while the agency investigates the matter.

    A 24-year employee of FDLE, Rollins earns less than $25,000 a year and processes criminal background checks for the agency. Rollins said the agency has no specific, written dress code that prohibits T-shirts displaying messages.

    Agency policy does state that employees should "demonstrate good judgment and a commitment to a professional work place by dressing appropriately."

    But the issue isn't about free speech, said FDLE assistant general counsel D. David Sessions. It's about obeying the orders of a supervisor. For refusing to go home, Rollins is being investigated for insubordination and unbecoming conduct. The case could lead to disciplinary action.

    Rollins asked that a St. Petersburg Times reporter be allowed to attend her interview with FDLE officials about the matter on Thursday. FDLE refused, saying the meeting was not public.

    Rollins says she wore the T-shirt because she was mistreated -- reprimanded and threatened with prosecution because she would not turn over a tape recording to FDLE.

    She made the recording in March, when she sat down with her supervisors to discuss problems she had with a part of her job evaluation. Rollins got permission from her supervisor to tape the meeting.

    Later, when Rollins wrote a memo describing the meeting that conflicted with the supervisors' accounts, FDLE demanded the tape recording to find out who was telling the truth.

    Having had past run-ins with the agency -- she once sued FDLE and lost -- Rollins said Thursday she didn't believe FDLE officials would act in her best interest if they had the tape. She also she spent $55 on the tape recorder and tapes and she considers them her personal property.

    FDLE says the tape is a matter of public record and Rollins could be violating public records law, a second-degree misdemeanor, by refusing to hand it over. Sessions acknowledged Thursday that state prosecutors in Tallahassee did not agree with FDLE and indicated they would not prosecute Rollins.

    Rollins doesn't regret wearing the T-shirt.

    "You have no idea how uplifted I felt that day," she said.

    -- Times staff writer Diane Rado can be reached at

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