A St. Paul police officer is on leave amidst calls for his ouster after posting a hostile Facebook message about a Black Lives Matter rally on Martin Luther King Day this year.
According to reports, the officer posted that the protesters on the Lake Street Bridge connecting the two Twin Cities should have been run over, called the protestors “idiots,” and encouraged those on the road not to slow down. After receiving complaints about the post, the St. Paul Police investigated and placed the officer on leave.
As we wrote recently in “Employee’s Racist Post Means His Job is Toast”, an employee’s comments on social media may have consequences for his or her employment even if the behavior took place outside of work. In the case of a police officer, however, the matter is a bit more complex since like other public employees, police are subject to the protections of the First Amendment relating to free speech.
How Free is our Speech?
Even so, a public employee’s free speech rights are not absolute. The United States Supreme Court in a case entitled Connick v. Myers ruled that for a public employee to establish that his or her First Amendment rights were violated by a reprimand or termination, the employee must establish (1) that the speech addressed a matter of public concern, and (2) the employee’s free speech interests outweigh the employer’s efficiency interests.
A “matter of public concern” is one that “relates to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.” Essentially, the question is whether the employee is speaking as an employee or as a private citizen. If it is the latter, the employee’s speech is likely to fall outside the protection of the First Amendment.
The evaluation of the employer’s efficiency interests tends to focus on the need for a disruption-free work place. Important factors include whether the speech:
- impairs discipline or harmony among co-workers;
- has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary; or
- interferes with the normal operation of the employer’s business.
How does the police officer’s statement suggesting that protesters be run down in the street stack up against these criteria? Until there is an official legal determination, we will let you be the judge.
In many respects, this issue is not much different than it has been for many years. Employees have always been subject to reprimand and even termination for inappropriate statements, even if they were made outside of work. The big difference in the social media age is that (1) such statements can be broadcast to a much larger audience; and (2) they are more provable since they can be reposted, downloaded or printed.
In the case of this particular police officer, it remains to be seen whether his First Amendment rights will protect him from otherwise being (quite ironically) thrown under the bus.