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.