City may punish police officer for her comments on social media

November 9, 2013

Facebook ButtonA Georgia law enforcement officer’s postings on Facebook merited the employer’s refusal to promote the officer, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. It rejected the officer’s First Amendment lawsuit.

The lawsuit arose from the officer’s Facebook comments, in which she stated that a co-worker interfered with an investigation into an individual arrested for fraud and identity theft.

Because the officer’s Facebook page was marked “private,” it was available for viewing only by her online “friends.”

However, those online “friends” could possibly distribute the comment more broadly.

The employer began investigating the officer’s alleged violation of its work rule, and then overlooked the officer when awarding promotions.

The officer responded with a federal lawsuit.

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In Gresham v. City of Atlanta, 2013 WL 5645316, No. 12-12968 (11th Cir., unpublished 10/17/13), the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the officer’s free speech claim.

Upon balancing the parties’ interests, the court decided that the employee’s Facebook comments tended to disrupt good working relationships within the police department.

“Common experience teaches that public accusations of unethical conduct against fellow officers would have a natural tendency to endanger the esprit de corps and good working relationships amongst the officers,” the court said.

It reasoned that the officer’s interest in venting her frustration with her supervisors was not a strong one because her Facebook statements did not address an issue of public concern.