Articles Posted in Public Sector

Earlier this week, I wrote about the issue of threats made via Facebook constitute constitutionally protected speech.  Today’s post also is about threats made via Facebook but in the context of the workplace.  The case, decided by the Court of Appeals of Ohio, is timed perfectly for my road trip tomorrow to Ohio. social media letterpress_3

In Ames v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, an employee, a Senior Parole Officer, was sent for an independent medical exam after she posted a Facebook comment that her employer believed to be a threat.  The comment was in reference to shooting parolees.  The employee claimed that the comment was a joke.  The psychologist who conducted the exam cleared her to return to work, finding no evidence of depression, anxiety, or mood disturbance.

A few months later, the employer received an “anonymous” complaint that the employee was using her state-issued computer for non-work purposes.  It turned out that the complaint actually was made by the new partner of the employee’s ex-girlfriend.  The new partner, of course, was a co-worker. There was an investigation and the employee was issued a written reprimand.

The intersection of Facebook use and Free Speech is complicated.  Complicated enough, in fact, that the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on the subject when it decides a case it is scheduled to hear argument in today, Elonis v. United States. text message speech bubble or twitter keyboard_3

The basic legal principle at issue is what constitutes a “true threat.”  It is a crime to use the phone or Internet to make a “threat to injure” another person.  And “true threats” are not protected as speech under the First Amendment.  So, “true threats” to injure another made via Facebook can be punishable as crimes.  Otherwise, the speech would be protected by the constitution and could not be considered criminal.

But what’s a “true threat?”  Is that question to be answered by the “reasonable person” who would be subject to the threat?  Or does the speaker have to have intended his words as a threat to constitute a criminal act?

During the 2007-2008 school year, Ms. Kimble was employed as a cook and cheerleading coach at a high school.  In December 2007, she took the cheerleaders on an overnight Christmas party held in a cabin located outside the county.  The trip was not approved as was required by district policy.  When administration learned about the trip, Ms. Kimble was instructed that all future out-of-county trips must have prior approval.

The following year, Ms. Kimble worked as a cook at an elementary school and as the cheerleading coach at the same high school at which she had coached the prior year.  In December 2008, Ms. Kimble took the cheerleaders to the same cabin for another overnight Christmas party.  Ms. Kimble and a parent went as “chaperones” but Ms. Kimble did not seek or obtain approval for the trip.

During the party, Ms. Kimble was photographed in the hot tub, surrounded by several female cheerleaders.  Although Ms. Kimble was clothed, most of the girls were topless.  All of the girls were minors. 

The plaintiff is a Michigan lawyer.  She was placed on the assignment list of the County Probate Court and, as a result, received several case assignments.  She made a comment on Facebook about what she believed to be inefficiency at the Clerk’s Office at the Court in a particular case she was handling. She tagged two people in the post, mistakenly identifying them as employees at the Clerk’s Office. how_to_permanently_delete_or_deactivate_facebook_account_thumb

One of the two employees brought the post to the attention of the Court administrator.  The administrator never saw the actual post.  Two days later, the Court administrator notified the plaintiff by letter that she had been removed from the assignment list because of her comment on Facebook.

The plaintiff attempted to get back on the list multiple times but was unsuccessful and filed suit.  The suit alleges several constitutional claims, all but one of which were dismissed by the court.  The claim that survived is a claim for unlawful retaliation in violation of the First Amendment-i.e., a free-speech claim.

Public-sector employees have First Amendment rights.  But those rights are not without limits.  Employers, too, have rights-in particular, the right to operate an effective and efficient workplace.  Law-enforcement agencies get even more protection because the law recognizes the potential for harm to the department’s reputation and the public’s trust.

And how do all of these rights play out in the context of social media?  Usually in the employer’s favor.  As yet another court opinion shows, police officers have very little latitude when it comes to posting controversial views on their personal Facebook pages.

The plaintiff in this case, Deputy Chief Rex Duke, worked for the Clayton State University Police Department for eight years with no performance problems.  Shortly after the presidential election in November 2012, the plaintiff posted a picture of a confederate flag to his Facebook page with the comment, “It’s time for the second revolution.”

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. 3d police officer

The comments weren’t outrageous, frankly.  No profanity, for example.  They were, however, decisively negative about the Chief’s leadership of the Department. 

Employees in the private sector do not have free-speech rights in their employment, contrary to popular belief.  Employees in the public sector, on the other hand, do have such rights, although they are not limitless. When it comes to First Amendment challenges to Facebook firings, employers continue to prevail in nearly every case.  Here is another such victory.

The plaintiff worked as a case worker for child-protective services investigating reports of child abuse and neglect.  In that role, she was charged with determining whether a child was safe in his or home.  If she determined that the home was unsafe, she worked with the District Attorney’s Office to petition the court for protective custody.  She testified in court about eight times a month.

In making these determinations, she was not supposed to consider the employment status, religious beliefs, or political beliefs of the adults in the home and was not to concern herself with how they chose to spend their money or furnish their home.

Employee posts “unpleasant” comment on Facebook.  The subject of that comment complains to employee’s employer.  Employer terminates employee.  Employee sues the complaining party-not the employer.  Interesting, right?  Here’s the case.

The plaintiff alleged that she worked as a case manager in San Antonio public schools.  She claimed that she alerted the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD), when she learned that an individual subject to a restraining order had contacted a student in violation of that order.  Officers were dispatched to the student’s home but no action was taken because the officers did not believe there to be a valid protective order in place.  

The plaintiff, believing that an order did exist, was frustrated by her feeling that the officers “did not want to do their job to protect her student.”  From her home later that day, the plaintiff posted to her Facebook account a profanity-laden comment about the “lazy ass, mother-effers on B-shift who don’t care to do their jobs the way they’re supposed to.”

Here’s another Facebook-firing case to add to the “win” column for public-sector employers. [FN1] The plaintiff-police officer, Maria Gresham, posted comments on her Facebook page critical of another officer’s involvement in an arrest Gresham had made. Her Facebook page was “set to private” but, of course, the Department got wind of the comments and an investigation was initiated. bullhorn blue background_3

The plaintiff was alleged to have violated the Department’s work rule requiring that any criticism of a fellow officer “be directed only through official Department channels . . . and not be used to the disadvantage of the reputation or operation of the Department or any employees.” [FN2]

While the investigation was pending, Plaintiff was not able to post for the several promotions that came open. Thus, she sued, alleging that she was not promoted in retaliation for her First Amendment speech on Facebook.

At a seminar about Internet safety, the District’s IT Director gave a presentation designed to illustrate the permanent nature of social-media posts and how your posts could be embarrassing if published by third parties.  One of the slides in the Director’s presentation, titled, “Once It’s There-It’s There to Stay”,” showed a photo of a student in a bikini and standing next to a life-size cut-out of the rapper Snoop lens_thumb

The Director found the picture by browsing students’ Facebook pages for pictures to use in his presentation.  Paper copies of the presentation, including the slide featuring the student’s picture, which also identified her by name, were distributed to attendees.

As you may imagine, the student, Chelsea Chaney, was not happy about her cameo.  She filed suit against the district and against the IT Director, alleging violations of her constitutional rights protected by the 4th and 14th Amendments, as well as state-law tort claims.  The District moved to dismiss.

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