Top 10 Social Media Tips for Public Safety Employees
By: Aikaterini Houston, Attorney
Given their very public careers, police officers face scrutiny daily for what they post on social media in their private lives. Social media can affect law enforcement officers in so many ways. It’s incredible just how prevalent social media has become in today’s society. As of the second quarter of 2018, Facebook and Instagram had reported a combined 3.23 billion active monthly users. Chances are you are also a regular user of one of these social media platforms, but as a public safety employee, are you mindful of what you post and how you represent yourself to the social media world?
Consider these tips before posting that “picture” or sending that “comment” off into the world.
1. Nothing you post online is truly private. Check your privacy settings. Be cautious of who your audience is. Facebook and Instagram allow you to customize your privacy settings so that you can directly control the audience who sees your posts or photographs. You can control who your “friends” are and what they see. Are you friends with people from work? Remember, once it’s out there, you can never truly undo it.
2. Before posting, ask yourself: if my boss receives a complaint about what I’m going to post, how will he react? If the answer is “not so well” or “he’ll start a disciplinary investigation,” is the post really worth it? Think before you post and don’t let emotions get the best of you. If you’re not entirely sure, wait a while before posting and you may later change your mind. It is far easier to avoid making comments about a supervisor online than to defend against them later.
3. Be careful who you “friend.” Would you share private details about your life with someone you haven’t seen in years or perhaps were never truly friends with? If not, then why would you do so on social media? Do you trust them? Do you know who their friends are and what they are capable of sharing? If you answered no, you’re better off keeping them out of your social media circle.
4. Don’t gripe or complain about your job or boss for the world to see. You can be disciplined for this. The Supreme Court has ruled that, when employee expression cannot fairly be considered to relate to any matter of political, social, or other public concern, government officials should not have to suffer too much interference with managing their offices. In other words, you can be disciplined. (Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 US 563 (1968)). Complaints about your job or boss are likely not going to be considered as relating to a matter of public concern.
5. Don’t post confidential work-related information. This is common sense. If it relates to an internal matter that is not meant for the public, don’t post it.
6. Don’t post material that would violate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation workplace rules. Don’t use social media as a means to fuel conflict, undermine other employees, or serve as a means for embarrassment, bullying, or similar behavior. These things are not worth losing your job.
7. Your First Amendment rights are very limited. If you are disciplined or terminated for what you believe is a violation of your First Amendment rights and bring a claim against your employer under the First Amendment, you must convince the court that your interest in speaking openly on a matter of public concern outweighs the government's interest in having an efficient workplace. This is hard to do. Once a plaintiff states a claim for unlawful retaliation, a court must decide “if the interest of the employee as a citizen, in commenting on matters of public concern, outweighs the employer's interest in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees." Courts have to make this decision after weighing the facts of each particular case. Some balancing factors for a court to consider include whether:
- the statement impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among coworkers;
- the statement has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary; and
- whether the speech in question interferes with the normal operation of the employer's business.
The extent of the government's burden to show disruption depends on the nature of the employee's expression. The more important the First Amendment interest, the more disruption the government has to show. A speaker's "personal stake" in a controversy does not prevent speech on the issue from involving a matter of public concern.
8. Speak as a private citizen, not in your official capacity as a public safety employee. The Supreme Court has also decided that employees must be acting as private citizens to receive First Amendment protection. That is, they are not acting as private citizens while performing their job duties. In essence, the boss can control what is said on the job, but not what the employee says on matters of public concern as a private citizen.
9. Your credibility can be called into question by what you’ve posted online. Don’t blemish your reputation or credibility for an unnecessary post. You’re the one who will have to live with the consequences.
10. Posting personal information can jeopardize your and your family’s safety. As an officer of the law, you are entitled to heightened protection in terms of your personal information. Posting personal or detailed information that gives others information about you or your family can create an unexpected risk and safety concerns. It’s never worth it.
Moral of the story: if you’re unsure about the possible implications of your social media activity, don’t do it.