City Fire Department implements new social media policy

Union leaders, experts say provisions infringe on First Amendment rights

November 02, 2012|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Fire Department has implemented a strict new social media policy outlining what firefighters can post on Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs — drawing criticism that the department is trampling on First Amendment rights.

Under the policy, department personnel can be reprimanded for anything they write online about their jobs that doesn't adhere to conduct rules, which require "good judgment" and "courtesy and respect to the public and to fellow employees." The policy also restricts them from sharing information about fire scenes.

Fire Chief James S. Clack said the department crafted the policy to protect firefighters from getting into trouble for sharing sensitive information.

But union leaders called the policy too broad and said the department created it unilaterally after negotiations with union attorneys broke down last month. Social media and free-speech advocates balked at the scope of the policy and questioned its legality.

Bradley Shear, a Bethesda attorney who has advised state legislators in Annapolis on social media policy, said the new provisions are "troubling" and potentially unconstitutional.

"I think the policy is clearly suspect," Shear said. "It's over-broad, it's retroactive, and I think they need to go back to the drawing board."

Clack initiated the drafting of the new policy this spring after fire personnel took to Twitter and other social media sites to grumble about department and city leaders and the decision to close fire companies to save money.

Clack said he observed some firefighters and officers "crossing the line" by posting sensitive and often incorrect information about fire calls, including some where first-responders were still on the scene.

But firefighters said they believe their online criticisms of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Clack and other city officials following the company closures were what prompted the crackdown.

The new policy applies to online chatter even if the firefighters post anonymously, and regardless of whether they are off duty. While on duty, firefighters are specifically barred from commenting online about "matters of public concern."

Fire personnel are also prohibited from posting online "in such a way as to cause actual or reasonably foreseeable harm or disruption to the operations of the BCFD or the City." That would include sharing "the real-time public disclosure of locations of deployed units, assets or personnel or any other real-time information from an incident scene."

In addition, individual fire units can no longer maintain independent websites outlining their work in the communities they serve, and firefighters can no longer photograph or record images of department property without express permission.

David L. Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University who has written about public employees' social media rights, said the department's new policy generally "strikes a good balance between protecting free-speech rights and protecting the department." But, he said, the policy's "breadth" raises concerns.

Prohibiting online speech that doesn't show good judgment is too broad because it "could be interpreted to be anything they don't like," Hudson said.

Clack said the purpose is not to keep personnel in lock step with department leaders but to "avoid some of the problems that have cropped up across the country and even here in Maryland with firefighters posting things that get them in trouble."

This summer, several members of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company in Harford County were suspended or demoted after they complained on Facebook about not receiving a discount at a local restaurant and joked about not responding to emergency calls there.

"It's all kind of evolving in fire service and in police departments as well," Clack said of social media policy.

In Philadelphia, firefighters and union leaders publicly decried a new policy restricting firefighters' use of social media, including Facebook and Twitter. The department issued a four-page memo outlining the policy in August.

The Philadelphia and Baltimore policies are similar. Both restrict the use of Fire Department imagery and sharing information about emergency calls, and ban members from making discriminatory remarks online about race, religion and other personal characteristics.

The two departments also restrict the use of electronic devices on the job. The new Baltimore policy says firefighters cannot use personal mobile devices at fire scenes unless they have permission, and bans them from using cameras any time on the job.

The Baltimore Police Department had been in the process of creating a new social media policy as well, but that effort has been tabled as the new commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, transitions into his role.

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