Can you be disciplined for what you post on social media? The short answer is yes. Wait, you think, how can that be? Don’t I have a right to freedom of speech? My posts are on my personal account and I didn’t identify myself as an officer. So how can my employer discipline me for what i do off duty? Let me explain.
I’m Muna Busailah, managing partner in the police defense firm of Stone Busailah. For over two decades, we’ve represented public safety employees and investigations regarding all kinds of misconduct, including social media posts. The law is that every officer is guaranteed the rights enumerated in the constitution, including the first amendment right commonly known as freedom of speech.
Limits to your first amendment rights
That does not mean, however, that the first amendment permits an officer or anyone else for that matter to engage in whatever speech they choose. For example, you cannot shout “Fire” in a crowded theater or incite others to riot.
Public disclosure of peace officer information
Despite laws being enacted that prohibit public disclosure of certain types of peace officer information, including their likeness, photographs, home address, peace officer personal records and the like, peace officers routinely place their private information into the public domain on social media.
Once the information is out there, it cannot be retrieved and any one can use it, repost it, comment to others about the content of a posting, and use it in news reports. In some cases, the information has been used in lawsuits against a law enforcement officer, and it is certainly used in family law cases as a sword during custody disputes.
An example of what can go wrong
So let’s say you post a comment on someone else’s page related to an opinion on some topic in the media. A person replies, and you engage in a back and forth exchange over the issue.
Someone who’s reading the thread takes offense at the comments, files a complaint with your department, and an investigation ensues. The department finds your comments brought discredit to the department and you get disciplined.
Nothing on social media is private
Nothing you do on social media is private. Even if you intended it to be private, it can and often is made public. The results can be devastating for your private and professional life. Posting anything that’s even slightly offensive by the standard of others, not yours, is very dangerous.
What you should do
Here’s the bottom line: Avoid posting on social media at all. But if you do post, consider the possibility of who may take offense before you push publish. As always, connect with a competent lawyer to represent you in the investigation process. And if you would like further information, click the link to get access to our free guide, “Ten things you need to know in an internal affairs investigation.”