Susan Graziosi, a sergeant with 25 years of experience with the Greenville, Mississippi police department, was frustrated. She had just learned that the PD was sending no one to the funeral of an officer who was killed in the line of duty in the nearby town of Pearl. This struck the sergeant as disrespectful. Moreover, it was evidence, to her, of a deeper problem. She vented on Facebook.
Here are some excerpts:
This is totally unacceptable.
Dear Mayor, can we please get a leader that understands that a department sends officers of [sic] the funeral of an officer killed in the line of duty?
We had something then that we no longer have….LEADERS.
You’ll be happy to know that I will no longer use restraint when voicing my opinion on things. Ha!
If you don’t want to lead, can you just get the hell out of the way?
Since some of this was posted on the mayor’s designated public Facebook page, it quickly came to the attention of Sergeant Graziosi’s boss, Police Chief Cannon. The Cannon went boom two days later—he fired the sergeant.
Graziosi sued the city and the chief, alleging that they had trampled all over her free speech rights. The case went to the 5th Circuit, which ruled in favor of the city and the chief. The court held that Ms. Graziosi was speaking “as a citizen” when she posted on Facebook. Posting on Facebook was not a routine part of her job duties. Even though she clearly identified herself as a police officer, this still qualified as speech “as a citizen” for purposes of the First Amendment analysis.
But to have legal protection for what they say, public employees must not only be speaking “as a citizen,” they must also show that they are speaking about “a matter of public concern.” This is where Sgt. Graziosi lost the case. The court took into account the form, the context and the content of her remarks, and held that the sergeant’s posts “quickly devolved into a rant attacking Chief Cannon’s leadership.” It was “akin to an internal grievance” rather than a matter of genuine concern to the general public.
That was enough for the city to prevail in the litigation, but the court proceeded to make one more point: that the city’s interests in maintaining discipline, loyalty and harmony within the police department outweighed Sergeant Graziosi’s interests. The fact that this was a police department weighed heavily here. As the court noted, the police department is a “paramilitary organization” where discipline, loyalty and healthy working relationships are particularly important.
So: what about that teacher who takes to Facebook late at night with an attack on the superintendent or principal? Can the teacher be fired? Of course, all we can say for sure about that is “it depends.” But this case from Mississippi gives you a good idea of what it depends upon. Was the teacher speaking “as a citizen” on “matters of general concern”? Does the school district’s interest in harmony and efficiency in the workplace outweigh the interests of the teacher?
The case is Graziosi v. City of Greenville, Mississippi, 775 F.3d 731 (5th Cir. 2015).
DAWG BONE: THINK TWICE BEFORE YOU POST ON FACEBOOK. THEN THINK AGAIN. AND THEN THINK AGAIN.