The ABA Journal, published by the American Bar Association, recently posted an article on its website about government workers' use of social media. The article is entitled "Public Employees, Private Speech: 1st Amendment Doesn't Always Protect Government Workers," and is authored by David L. Hudson, Jr.
The article offers some guidance to government employers in disciplining their employees for social media conduct, and discusses some of the legal issues in enacting social media policies. The examples of employees being disciplined for off-duty social media activities used in the article are a good reminder to government workers that their off-duty social media activities could result in discipline.
The author notes that although government workers have First Amendment and other rights to engage in social media speech, those rights do not extend to everything an employee might post on social media. The article sets out the general legal standard that applies to government employee speech, as follows:
For years, courts first asked whether a public employee spoke on a matter of public concern or importance. If the speech is merely a private grievance, a First Amendment claim fails, because the speech doesn’t carry much importance for the public at large. If the speech touches on matters of public concern, then the court balances the employee’s right to free speech against the employer’s interests in an efficient, disruption-free workplace.
To determine whether a public employee’s speech is too disruptive, a court asks whether it affects close working relationships, interferes with the employer’s normal operation of business or impairs discipline on the job.
Although there are only a handful of reported cases on government employee social media conduct, they do consistently apply this standard to determine whether an employer lawfully disciplined or terminated an employee for off-duty social media activities.
You may remember that we reported on a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion earlier this year that involved a disciplinary action brought against two police officers based on a police department social media policy that prohibited "[n]egative comments on the internal operations of the bureau, or specific conduct of supervisors or peers that impacts the public's perception of the department..." The court of appeals struck down the police department policy as overly broad because it would encompass the type of protected speech that falls within the legal standard discussed above. You can read our previous post about that case here.
The article on the ABA Journal's website can be accessed here: Public Employees, Private Speech: 1st Amendment Doesn't Always Protect Government Workers,
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf