Social Media vs Employer vs your rights

Wow!  Imagine my surprise when I popped open my browser window to find this:

Cop catches heat for profane blog entries

Although Newport News doesn’t regulate the behavior of off-duty employees or what they write, individuals shouldn’t make reckless or malicious statements against city employees, according to the city’s existing policy. In addition, any conduct by police officers that’s prejudicial to the interests, reputation or operations of the city “are subject to disciplinary action,” under the city’s policies.  -=SOURCE=-

Since I am a sworn police officer who blogs on several different levels, you can imagine that it caught my attention immediately.

As I read the article I began to understand why this was newsworthy.  And the more I read the more concerned I became.  But then I realized that what is depicted in the article is only one side.  So I won’t pass judgment on the officer.

A little background

I blog.  I blog about politics.  I blog about local, national and international news.  I also blog about public safety agencies and Web 2.0.  I blog cop stories, war stories if you will.  And in all those niches, I also blog my opinion.  In those instances, I blog off duty, from my home using my home computer.  Lastly, I blog professionally as a police officer for my agency.  This is done on duty and with agency owned assets.

A little history

In August of 2007, I was involved in a local Virginia blogging controversy that gained some amount of old media attention, sparked conversations with lawyers and basically got really ugly.

I was accused of publishing the home address of a political operative on my blog.  He called my Chief of Police and filed a complaint, stating that I was harassing him on the internet and placing him and his family in danger.

The Chief of Police called me to his office to discuss this.  On the way to his office, I called my attorney and gave him a heads up and retained him just in case.

Once in the Chief’s office, he said, “I’ve received a complaint about your blog.”  And I told him the name of the complainant.  He nodded.  The Chief then played the audio recording of the complaint for me so I knew exactly what was said and then asked me if I could explain what was going on.

The first thing I did was show the Chief the blog post in question.  I showed him that the “published address” that was the central point of the complaint was in fact a screen capture of another web site and was a graphic, not a text publishing of the persons home address.  The key point on this is that the graphic was named something rather innocuous like “screetshot001.jpg” and provided absolutely NO search engine information.

I then took the Chief to the website where I retrieved the screen shot and showed him the page with the address on it.  In TEXT so it WAS able to be crawled by search engines.  On that website, the complainant is listed as a principle and while I don’t know for sure, may have been the web designer who manufactured the site.

I also showed the Chief that I have a disclosure on my blog indicating I was a police officer in a local jurisdiction and that this blog was private, maintained with personal funds and computers and was in no way connected to my agency or my city.  I did NOT identify which agency I was employed by.

Lastly, I showed the Chief my server logs, which indicated what time I placed the post online, and the IP from which I posted it.  It was something like 10:30PM (I work 8AM-5PM), from my home IP address.  He was satisfied that the complaint was unfounded and called the complainant back in my presence.

The blog post in question simply brought to light the position of the complainant and linked him, factually, with a nefarious action that he perpetrated.  All based in fact.  It did not attack the person personally or professionally, just identified his position and act in one place.

When the Chief explained to the complainant that the bottom line was a 1st Amendment concern and did not in any way concern or affect the agency, the complainant became upset and started screaming on the phone.  The Chief politely terminated the telephone call.

I had covered all my bases and carefully, made sure I was doing “things” by the book, and ethically.  It paid off.  Cost me $400 for the attorney but worth it for peace of mind.

Finally, I do not live in the city I work in.  I have no say, politically in the happenings of that city.  I don’t vote there, so who the city elects and puts in office is not my place to critique.  It concerns me but it’s not my place to say anything.    My primary blog is a political blog, but I just don’t blog about the city I work for.  It’s easy, and smart that way.

In the article quoted above, it lists some city rules that all employees must abide by.  If not codified in city code, it’s at least mandated by policy.  The city I work for has similar policies in place.

The meat of the article…

As police officers we ARE held to a different standard.  I’ll pose an example in the form of a question.  When was the last time you heard about an off duty Office Max (insert any company) employee getting arrested from DUI?

You probably haven’t.  Just John Doe (my apologies to Mr. Doe) was arrested for DUI.

However, if it is a police officer, you would find that information on the front page of the newspaper:  Off Duty (INSERT CITY HERE) Police Officer Arrested for DUI.

We are forever associated with our agencies.  Even after we leave the agency.  The headline would then read:  Former (INSERT CITY HERE) Police Officer Arrested for DUI.  Even if we work for Office Max now.

Because we are held to a different standard, it requires us to act differently than the everyday citizen.  Because no matter what, we are forever and always associated with that title and agency.

In the case of the article cited above.  Was the officer wrong?  Is the city squelching his 1st Amendment rights?  Does the city have the right to curtail off duty speech?

I don’t know.  He made choices I would not have made.  But that doesn’t make him wrong.  I will leave that to the courts to decide if needed.  My position is classical.  Don’t bite the hand that feeds you; and if you are going to be critical, do it professionally and tactfully.  Not in a breathless, possibly beer inspired rant.

The final discussion point is policy.  Should entities, public or otherwise enact policy that would dictate the use of social media.

One school of thought is this, enact policy now to cover it or be faced with a complete ban later.  Another is, if the city has a policy similar to Newport News, that it is sufficient to cover behavior when using social media.

I don’t think that a city, or any entity can ban the use of social media when not at work, but I would not want to be the “test case” that has to fight it if it comes to that.  Smart use of social media is required.  Not so smart use should be dealt with appropriately.

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