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Facebook, Free Speech and Criminal Justice Careers

How Social Media Can Affect Your Law Enforcement Career


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Facebook can be both a blessing and a curse in a job search. Copyright 2011 Tim Roufa

Tim Roufa
Everyone knows that we're guaranteed the right to freedom of speech in the United States, right?  This means we can say whatever we please, to whomever we please, so long as it doesn't cause undue harm or pose an immediate threat to public safety, like yelling "fire" in a crowded building.  

First Amendment, Facebook, and the Workplace

So, then, what does the First Amendment mean to Facebook and other social network users who happen to work in criminal justice?  To be frank, not much.

Your First Amendment rights only ensure that the government won't suppress your speech.  Individual employers, however, can regulate your speech if it affects your ability to perform your job. For criminal justice professionals, that's a pretty broad brush.

Social Networking Changes the Public-Private Paradigm

Facebook and other social networking sites have changed the landscape of the relationship between employees' professional and private lives.  What once may have been a private indiscretion may very easily become a public scandal with one click of a mouse.

Maintaining a Positive Public Image

Law enforcement officers necessarily enjoy a certain level of respect and appreciation from the majority of their communities.  With that appreciation, however, comes high expectations that they will lead by example, follow the law and be exemplary citizens.

Though in reality it's not always the case, agencies strive to maintain a positive and professional appearance.  To the extant that individual officers' behavior both on an off duty can reflect poorly on their employers, most agencies reserve the right to take action, up to and including dismissal, to prevent and dissuade employees from causing embarrassment to the department and from diminishing the public trust.

To that end, police departments spend a great deal of time screening applicants' social network profiles as part of their hiring process.  In most cases, they will ask a candidate to log into his account in the presence of a background investigator.  Some agencies, however, have grown so bold as to require the candidate's account and password information so the investigator can login himself.  

Discipline for Dirty Laundry

The interest in what employees do online hasn't been limited to the hiring process, though.  Law enforcement agencies across the country are beginning to pay more attention to what their employees post.  In fact, several officers have been severely disciplined and even fired for some of the things they've shared with their "friends."

A DUI arrest or a domestic violence incident will likely end a law enforcement career because it is a liability for the agency and inhibits the officer's credibility and ability perform effectively.  In much the same way, racy photos that associate an individual with a police department or racist rants in an online forum can threaten and officer's safety, diminish his standing in the community and outright violate the public trust.  

When instances like these occur, department's are often left with no choice but to separate the employee.  To do otherwise could be seen as negligent if, say, an officer who posted racist comments was found to be treating a particular ethnic group  unfairly.

Just Me and 5,000 of My Closest Friends

Facebook and other social networking sites pose a new and unique problem for employers.  While in one sense, social media pages are private matters, they're displayed to the public.  

Many Facebook users, for example, have hundreds of "friends" online. In reality, though, they are only intimately acquainted with a fraction of those people.  As a result, what you may be able to get away with doing or saying in a small group of intimate friends is often very different from what you may be able to do or say to hundreds of loose acquaintances.

Therein lies the real issue with social networking, insomuch as it provides a false sense of privacy because people think they are among "friends."  At the same time, though, social media posts are, in fact, very public.  As such, inappropriate online activity can be easily seen as disparaging to the employing agency.

Law Enforcement Officers Must Be Above Reproach

The fact of the matter is, police departments have a vested interest in ensuring their officers and other employees are above reproach.  In law enforcement professions, the public image is vital to the department's ability to carry out its mission.  Under the right circumstances, the wrong Facebook post or tweet could severely hamper that image.

What You Should or Shouldn't Post

So what's the dividing line?  How can you tell if you've crossed the line and risk not getting hired, or worse, fired?  At what point do employers have the right to regulate your speech?  

The simple answer is that if your online behavior could reflect poorly on your agency, it's probably subject to regulation.  This means rude, obscene or inappropriate photographs, especially if they associate you with your department; disparaging comments about your department, your community or racial or ethnic groups, especially when you give the appearance that you're speaking in your official capacity; and it even means posts and photos of otherwise private behaviors that could embarrass the  department.

When in Doubt

Though social media posts often document and reflect private behavior, they are published in a public, or at least semi-public, forum.  What you do on Facebook should not necessarily be the same as what you may do behind closed doors. In short, as a good rule of thumb, if it's not something you'd do in front of your boss, you might want to think twice about posting it.

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