Free Police Speech on Facebook

By William Vogeler, Esq. on December 19, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Cops are Facebook people, too. And according to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, police have a right to gripe about their jobs on Facebook and elsewhere. There are concerns, of course.

"We do not deny that officers' social media use might present some potential for division within the ranks, particularly given the broad audience on Facebook," the court said. "But the speculative ills targeted by the social networking policy are not sufficient to justify such sweeping restrictions on officers' freedom to debate matters of public concern."

In other words, sergeant, step away from the Facebook.

Overbroad Social Media Policy

The case arose after the Petersberg Police Department disciplined Herbert Liverman and Vance Richards for their online statements in 2013. While off-duty, Liverman posted a message to his Facebook page:

"Sitting here reading posts referencing rookie cops becoming instructors. Give me a freaking break, over 15 years of data collected by the FBI in reference to assaults on officers and officer deaths shows that on average it takes at least 5 years for an officer to acquire the necessary skill set to know the job and perhaps even longer to acquire the knowledge to teach other officers."

More than 30 people "liked" or commented on the post. Richards, also off-duty at the time, commented:

"Well said bro, I agree 110% ... Not to mention you are seeing more and more younger Officers being promoted in a Supervisor/ or roll. It's disgusting and makes me sick to my stomach DAILY."

Negative Comments Provision

The department disciplined the officers for violating its policy, which states in part: "Negative comments on the internal operations of the Bureau, or specific conduct of supervisors or peers that impacts the public's perception of the department is not protected by the First Amendment free speech clause, in accordance with established case law."

The appeals court exclaimed at the "astonishing breadth" of the policy, saying "negative comments on the internal operations of the Bureau" or "specific conduct of supervisors or peers" could be just about anything. The court ruled that the policy was unconstitutional.

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