Public-sector employers can add yet another “W” in the “Win” column on the Facebook-firing scorecard. The victory comes by way of a federal court in Mississippi where, earlier today, a judge granted summary judgment to the City of Greenville in a First Amendment claim brought by a former police officer, Susan Graziosi.
Graziosi was employed by the Greenville Police Department for 26 years at the time she posted a series of comments on her Facebook page and the Facebook page of the then-mayor, complaining that the Chief of Police had not sent police-officer representatives to the funeral of an officer killed in the line of duty.
The comments weren’t outrageous, frankly. No profanity, for example. They were, however, decisively negative about the Chief’s leadership of the Department.
Upon learning of the comments, the Chief spoke to the City Attorney and expressed concern about his ability to lead the Department in light of Graziosi’s posts. Her employment was subsequently terminated for her violation of several Department policies, including Supporting Fellow Employees, Insubordination, and Discipline & Accountability.
Graziosi appealed to the City Council but the termination decision was upheld and she filed a First Amendment retaliation claim in federal court. Regular readers of this blog are likely more familiar than they’d like to be with the applicable test for a First-Amendment claim. But, hey, it’s a classic, so bear with me while I go through it again.
In order for a public-sector employee to state a claim under the First Amendment in a “Facebook-firing” case, the court must determine that the speech at issue is entitled to constitutional protection and that the employee’s free-speech interests outweigh the employer’s interest in maintaining an efficient and effective workplace. A review of any of the cases discussed in my previous posts (see the links, below), shows that the analysis usually comes out in the employer’s favor. This is especially so in police and other paramilitary institutions because the law recognizes the need to maintain discipline and good working relationships amongst employees.
And that is precisely what the court determined in this case, too. The court held that Graziosi’s venting on Facebook did not enjoy First Amendment protection. Moreover, the Chief’s interest in maintaining his authority and preserving close working relationships outweighed any constitutional protection Graziosi’s speech may have had. Thus, the court concluded, Graziosi’s termination was entirely lawful.
Another win for employers in the workplace battle involving social media.
Graziosi v. City of Greenville, No. 4:12-cv-68-MPM-DAS, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172581 (N.D. Miss. Dec. 3, 2013).
Government Employers Can (and Should) Have a Social Media Policy, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (an in-depth discussion of the First Amendment protections for public-sector employees' speech, including speech made via Facebook).
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