7 court cases cops should consider before posting content online
The internet has changed how officers think about “free” speech – and it’s costing them their careers
It is critical police officers understand the ramifications of content they post online. Here are seven court cases cops should read before hitting “click.”
Myers was working as an Assistant District Attorney when her boss transferred her to a different section. Myers opposed the transfer, and made her feelings known to several supervisors, including the DA. Before the transfer officially took place, Myers prepared a questionnaire that asked her co-workers’ views on the transfer policy, office morale and the level of confidence in supervisors. The DA fired Myers, saying she refused to accept her transfer and distributing the questionnaire was insubordination. Myers sued, alleging her termination violated her First Amendment right. Ruling against Myers, the Supreme Court fleshed out the “public concern” test. “Whether an employee’s speech addresses a matter of public concern must be determined by the content, form and the context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record.” The Court concluded Myers’ speech only dealt with personal and internal office issues.
Ceballos, a prosecutor with the LA District Attorney's Office (DAO), learned a sheriff had misrepresented facts in a warrant affidavit. He notified the attorneys prosecuting the case and all agreed the affidavit was questionable, but the DAO refused to dismiss the case. Ceballos then told the defense counsel, who subpoenaed him to testify. Ceballos alleged the DAO retaliated against him for his cooperation with the defense, which he argued was protected by the First Amendment. Ruling for the DAO, the Supreme Court enshrined the “private person” prong, holding that speech by a public employee – even if on a matter of public concern – is not protected if the employee is acting in his official capacity or duty.
A veteran officer’s complaints on Facebook about her department’s decision to not send officers to the funeral of an officer killed in the LOD in another community was not protected. The Fifth Circuit conceded the posts may have begun as commentary on matters of public concern but quickly devolved into rants attacking the Chief’s leadership and so, in context, involved a dispute over an intra-departmental decision. The court added that, even if the posts had constituted commentary on matters of public concern, the department’s interest in preserving loyalty and close working relationships outweighed the officer’s individual interests.
Because of police officer’s repeated allegations she was fulfilling her duties as a police officer by reporting misconduct by her FTO, court could not find her reports were made as a private citizen and, thus, were not protected by the First Amendment.
Officer who posted on his own time on his Facebook page support for six indicted fellow officers in a highly publicized and publicly debated high speed pursuit culminating in the shooting deaths of two unarmed vehicle occupants posted on a matter of public concern as a private citizen. Applying the third “balancing” test, the court found there was no evidence officer’s speech disrupted the operations of the department, so the speech was protected.
Police department social media policy that prohibited public comments that could be deemed unfavorable to the department was overbroad and, thus, violated the First Amendment. Officer’s Facebook posts critical of department training, supervision, and too-fast promotion were protected since he posted as a citizen on matters of public concern and the department did not provide evidence that its interests outweighed the officer’s.
Agency’s directive prohibiting troopers from communicating with any member of the public about the management of the canine drug detection unit restricted a trooper’s speech outside his official duties on a matter of public concern and no disruption of department operations was shown. Accordingly, the directive violated the trooper’s First Amendment rights.