Department Discipline Trumps FIrst Amendment

Does the First Amendment protect a police officer who uses Facebook to call out a fellow employee in violation of a department rule that prohibits criticizing department employees outside of official channels? The answer to that question is apparently “no”, in the Northern District of Georgia. The federal trial court in that District recently held that an Atlanta cop could be disciplined for a posting on Facebook. The cop was ticked off at an investigator. Here’s what her Facebook post said:

Who would like to hear the story of how I arrested a forgery perp at Best Buy only to find out later at the precinct that he was the nephew of an Atlanta Police Investigator who stuck her ass in my case and obstructed it?? Not to mention the fact that while he was in my custody, she took him into several other rooms alone before I knew they were related. Who thinks this is unethical?

The cop claimed that she resorted to Facebook as a last resort, when the department didn’t investigate her complaint. But there was a chronological problem with that story. It seems that the Facebook post went up just a week after the arrest. The cop didn’t file a memorandum about the incident with the department until two weeks after the arrest. It’s amazing what a simple timeline will reveal.

Besides that factual problem, the court found that the cop failed to show that her First Amendment rights outweighed the legitimate need for the police department to maintain efficient public service. Here, the court found that the police department had a need to maintain “discipline, esprit de corps and uniformity” within the department. I understand the court’s decision, although I always worry that rules like this one have the effect of covering up misconduct. But assuming the records of the investigation of the investigator are public records, it is good to know that the situation won’t be swept under the rug, even if individual employees can be censored.