More than four years ago, my colleague Jennifer Smith wrote a blog entry entitled “Social Media Will Ruin Your Whole Life.” The blog detailed how one corporate executive lost her job over one “stupid tweet.” Atty. Smith’s advice to police officers, teachers, and firefighters was “delete your social media accounts now, if you haven’t already.” That advice is even more critical today.
A group called “The Plain View Project” has compiled a database of “public Facebook posts and comments made by current and former police officers” from eight cities around the country. An article disseminated today by LRIS (Labor Relations Information System) explains that, in June, 72 Philadelphia police officers were placed on administrative leave after the department began investigating allegations of racist and offensive Facebook posts by these officers. Since then, 13 of those officers have been notified that the department intends to terminate them; 7 of those 13 have just resigned. Four other officers were suspended for 30 days, three face no discipline, and the remaining face disciplinary action ranging between reprimand and five-day suspension.
Whether you like groups like Plain View Project prying into your Facebook posts or not, it is a reality that these groups exist. In addition, any FB post you’ve ever made is potentially something that could be used to make you look bad by jealous colleagues, spiteful relatives, or anybody else who has an ax to grind with you. The same must be said about all social media, including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Imgur, Yelp, and the many others I’ve never heard of.
As a public employee, and particularly one who daily deals directly with the public, you are called upon to evenhandedly and judiciously ply your trade. Whether intended or not, any action you take which in any way calls into question your evenhandedness can potentially get you into trouble.
And, you may ask, what about my First Amendment rights? In 1892, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes tersely articulated a police officer’s First Amendment rights: he “may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.” While there certainly are lines that can be drawn to distinguish public employees’ protected from unprotected speech, do you really want to be a constitutional test case? Are you sufficiently knowledgeable about the intricacies of free speech rights of public employees to be sure that what you post on social media can’t get you in trouble? I would strongly suggest that rather than play Russian Roulette with your career, you stay off social media. Whatever you might gain from participating in social media is dwarfed by what you might lose.