The Courts have made it clear that public employees do not give up all their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they make statements on matters in the public interest. However, those rights are balanced against the government’s interest in controlling the operation of its workforce. How these principles fit into today’s social media world was explored in an opinion last week from the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case called Kevin Patrick Buker v. Howard County.
The opinion indicates that Buker was battalion chief with the Howard County Fire Department, which in their chain of command placed him below the fire chief and his assistants and deputies. The Department in 2012 published social media guidelines, which prohibited personnel “from posting or publishing any statements, endorsements, or other speech…which could reasonably be interpreted to represent or undermine the views or positions of the Department…or interpreted as discriminatory, harassing, defamatory, racially or ethnically derogatory, or sexually violent” which may put the Department in disrepute of negatively impact its mission. The Department also adopted a Code of Conduct barring conduct through actions or words disrespectful to or undermining the Chain of Command.