UPDATE (8/1/19) – I started off with warnings not to share your political ideas on Facebook or the like. My recommendation has changed. Do not post anything on Facebook, Twitter, or the like. There are no privacy settings that will protect you. Sometimes it takes it hitting home to really make the message clear. 2 Gretna Police Department officers fired for one Facebook post. However, these days, hitting home does not mean it only hits home. The story of the 2 Gretna officers fired for Facebook posts can also be found in the New York Times. One of the Gretna officers wrote a post. The other officer merely clicked “Like” on the post. Play around with the search bar on Facebook. It is much more powerful than you might imagine. Search Google for tips and tricks for the Facebook search bar.
Just don’t do it. If you want to share pictures of your newborn child with your relatives spread across the country, go ahead – use Facebook – you can’t beat it. However, if you have a joke, a meme, or anything like that, keep it to yourself. When is the last time you tried to convey humor or sarcasm in a text message and it failed completely? It is very difficult to convey emotion or feeling. The same is true with Facebook. To make matters worse, there are those who don’t understand that articles in The Onion are satire, or what satire is. There are people who really believe that the United States Postal Service would create a commercial to brag about the number of fingers shipped by kidnappers. They are quite comical. You will find at least some of them amazing and amusing. However, what you wrote as a police officer can and will get you fired. Hitting a “Like” button is reported in the New York Times.
We post the FOP newsletter in the Crescent City Lodge Facebook Group. Anything wrong with reading that there? No. You probably cannot post in the Crescent City Lodge Facebook Group at all — well, not without approval. Why? It is for your own protection. There is no such thing as privacy on the Internet and nothing goes away. There are some things that are completely beyond your control. This is not one of those things. Educate yourself and protect yourself – click here.
I have written or reported information about police officers and the 1st Amendment Right to Free Speech before. See U.S. Fifth Circuit Case Update – 1st Amendment and Terry Stops and Police Officer First Amendment Rights. I have also written about Facebook and Free Speech rights. It is time to go over it again.
As time passes, the popularity of Internet websites comes and goes. Facebook has ceased to be a tool for the younger generation, but 1.56 billion people still log into Facebook every day. That number includes a lot of police officers (and firefighters). This article is probably just as applicable to firefighters as it is to police officers. The executive summary of this article is: “DON’T USE FACEBOOK TO SHARE YOUR POLITICAL VIEWS.” If you think that nobody is paying attention, you are mistaken.
That brings me to the Plain View Project. The Plain View Project says the following about itself:
The Plain View Project is a database of public Facebook posts and comments made by current and former police officers from several jurisdictions across the United States.
We present these posts and comments because we believe that they could undermine public trust and confidence in our police. In our view, people who are subject to decisions made by law enforcement may fairly question whether these online statements about race, religion, ethnicity and the acceptability of violent policing—among other topics—inform officers’ on-the-job behaviors and choices.
To be clear, our concern is not whether these posts and comments are protected by the First Amendment. Rather, we believe that because fairness, equal treatment, and integrity are essential to the legitimacy of policing, these posts and comments should be part of a national dialogue about police.
In the summer of 2016, a team of attorneys in Philadelphia learned that numerous local police officers had posted content on Facebook that appeared to endorse violence, racism and bigotry. In some of these posts, officers commented that apprehended suspects—often black men— “should be dead” or “should have more lumps on his head.” In other Facebook conversations, officers advocated shooting looters on sight and using cars to run over protestors. Numerous posts deemed Islam “a cult, not a religion” and referred to Muslims as “savages” and “goat-humpers.” And, in still others, officers appeared to joke about beating and raping women.
This discovery inspired the creation of the Plain View Project (PVP), a research project that has identified thousands of Facebook posts and comments by current and former police officers. We believe that these statements could erode civilian trust and confidence in police, and we hope police departments will investigate and address them immediately.
The website claims to search for Facebook accounts belonging to law enforcement officers. They claim to verify that the person is really a law enforcement officer employed by a law enforcement agency. They then collect posts from those officers and publish them to a searchable database. Right now, the database only consists of a limited number of jurisdictions:
- Philadelphia, PA
- Dallas, TX
- St. Louis, MO
- Phoenix, AZ
- York, PA
- Twin Falls, ID
- Denison, TX
- Lake County, FL
Some officers believe that the First Amendment protects speech like posts made to Facebook or other social media outlets.
YOU ARE ONLY PROTECTED BY THE FIRST AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION IF (1) YOU ARE SPEAKING AS A PRIVATE CITIZEN AND (2) YOU ARE SPEAKING ON A MATTER OF PUBLIC CONCERN.
What constitutes speaking as a private citizen? If you want to be safe, the answer is NOTHING. A private citizen doesn’t have information which is only available because of that person’s position as a law enforcement officer. A private citizen isn’t trying to promote a law enforcement officer’s career or adversely impact someone else’s.
Just forget about the First Amendment coming to your rescue.
In short, these posts could easily lead to disciplinary action or even termination. We have seen several of these cases, but nothing like what you can find in the Plain View Project database.
Do yourself a favor and read through some of the info collected. Hopefully, it will make you think twice about posting anything but cute pictures of kittens on social media. Just don’t do it.