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.”
His Facebook profile and posts were accessible only to his Facebook friends. His profile did not indicate that he was employed by the Police Department or even that he was a police officer. And he took the post down within an hour after posting it.
But that hour was long enough for one of his “friends” to send a screenshot of the post to the local TV station. A story ran that evening on the local news about the post and the plaintiff’s position as Deputy Chief.
The Police Department received anonymous complaints about Plaintiff, prompting an investigation. Following he investigation, the plaintiff was demoted in rank and duties and his pay was cut. The plaintiff sued the Police Department, alleging First Amendment retaliation.
The court upheld the demotion, finding no unlawful imposition by the employer on the plaintiff’s right to free speech. The basis for the court’s opinion was the potential disruption and/or actual disruption caused by the plaintiff’s posts. In most circuits, including the 11th Circuit, potential disruption can be sufficient justification for an employer’s interference with an employee’s right to free speech. Here, the court explained, there was not only potential for disruption caused by the plaintiff’s post but there was actual disruption, as well, as evidenced by the complaints the Department received.
Are these consequences harsh? Most definitely. Remember, the post was not publicly accessible and was up only for an hour. But that doesn’t mean that the consequences were unlawful.
Duke v. Hamil, No. 1:13-cv-01663-RWS, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13388 (N.D Ga. Feb. 4, 2014).