CAPE CORAL, FL – After concerns over potential free-speech violations, the Cape Coral Fire Department has rescinded a policy restricting posts made by employees on their personal Facebook pages and other social media accounts.
The policy was prompted, in part, by comments made by department employees on news-press.com, on which posters are required to use Facebook profiles to post comments.
The policy went into effect Oct. 28 and was rescinded less than two weeks later after the fire union filed a grievance claiming the policy unfairly restricted employees’ free-speech rights.
According to the policy, department employees discussing issues related to the city or who identified themselves as a member of the department on social media platforms had to follow rules.
They were told, at a minimum, they should include a disclaimer pointing out they were not speaking on behalf of the city.
Employees also were required to ensure the content they posted was “factually accurate and complies with relevant city policies.”
Posting material considered “obscene, defamatory, threatening, harassing, discriminatory or hateful to another person or entity” also was prohibited.
Brendan Fonock, vice president of the fire union and the one who filed the grievance, said the policy reached too far.
“We don’t have a problem with them having a social media policy, but this one was so restrictive of people’s freedom of speech,” Fonock said. “It’s not against the law to be a firefighter and have an opinion.”
Before filing the grievance, Fonock said he discussed the policy with the union’s attorney.
“He said from top to bottom, it’s no good,” Fonock said.
Division Chief Jim Heikkila said the city attorney drafted the policy and will work with the union’s attorney to find a suitable alternative.
Fonock said it would not be proper for the union to craft city policies, but it could review any policy the city proposes.
Heikkila said he has long considered adopting a social media policy for the department but was spurred by a change in The News-Press’ comment section, which as of August has required a Facebook account in order to post comments instead of being able to post anonymously.
Often the educational background or place of employment is listed next to the person making the comment.
“I just saw the writing on the wall,” Heikkila said. “We knew something was gonna happen eventually.”
He said he hopes the new policy, when developed, protects free speech while imposing conditions that will prevent confusion over whether opinions expressed on social media pages are those of the city or the individual.
No one was disciplined under the old policy, he said.
The police department’s social media policy prohibits expressing an opinion while indicating or implying the opinion is that of the department as well as other conduct, such as posting content that is inappropriate or illegal when an affiliation with the department is present.
Other city employees fall under a different policy, which covers only the use of city computers.
“(O)ur social media policy does not (and cannot) dictate personal activity on any social media sites,” spokeswoman Connie Barron said in an email.