Editor’s Note: Perennially muddy waters: Public employees and free speech
It’s intimidating, as a reporter, to write about subjects that your audience might already be more familiar with than you are. This month I had that feeling while researching the development of bullet-resistant body armor.
That’s why, here at The Municipal, we rely on you — the experienced professionals in your field — to educate us on any number of topics that we think will be of assistance or interest — to your comrades in other parts of the country.
Which is why the research I’m beginning now on the topic of law enforcement officers and free speech is troubling twice over. If officers are afraid to talk to reporters, then we can’t write stories on issues that may be helpful to other small- and medium-sized departments across the country. I certainly can’t deny that sometimes the press writes stories about situations that are embarrassing for the people or the department involved. But that’s how wrongs get righted and problems are solved.
If public employees can’t speak out when there’s an unresolved public safety issue or an internal issue that’s affecting their job performance, then wrongdoing, injustices and inefficiencies fester into crises that sometimes consume entire departments or threaten the welfare of the public. Other times, with media like The Municipal, it might simply impede the sharing of good ideas.
As far as I can recall, the issue has never been black and white.
It seems to me like speaking to the press and posting to social media are two very different aspects of the issue, though. And they tend to have very different outcomes. In a speech analysis published Jan. 3, 2011, David Hudson of the First Amendment Center discussed how in 2008 two police officers spoke with members of the media about what they felt was an oppressive new leadership in the department. After convincing a judge that they made the comments as functionaries of other organizations, not the police force (Re: Garcetti v. Ceballos), their suspensions were canceled and the policy prohibiting members of the force from speaking with the media was rescinded.
It sounds like, in that situation, the men were revealing the existence of a hostile work environment. It needed to be addressed before that internal problem became a public safety issue, and it was.
One thing that does seem clear is that any opinion an on-duty or off-duty officer has is best kept to a small circle of people and far away from the court of social media.
Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are very dangerous places for public employees. In this day and age anyone can, and most everyone does, post every sort of ill-conceived thought, opinion, emotion and confession after giving them mere seconds of thought. Type 140 characters and hit send. The process takes about 30 seconds (ten, if you’re a teenager). That’s just not long enough to re-evaluate whether or not you really should be doing it in the first place.
Facebook friends and Twitter followers for the most part won’t investigate, clarify and add context to your comments the way a reporter will. Instead, they’ll spread the most inflammatory part of your momentary frustration to the four corners of the earth without an explanation that, say, may be the stress of a 12-hour shift that included the drunk-driving fatality of an acquaintance or a contentious difference of opinion with a city councilman was coloring your mood at that moment.
I doubt the issue of how much free speech public officials should be permitted will ever be settled. So I’ll just wish for the gift of good judgment for all of us.
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