May 14, 2019
By Sue Riseling
Public safety directors, chiefs of police, and security directors have been challenged recently to address concerns when staff members’ comments, photos, or video on social media reflect viewpoints that members of the community or department find objectionable. Leaders then grapple with an employee’s constitutional rights versus the reality of university sensitivities.
There is a clear and distinct line of response between actions occurring on department-run versus personal accounts. Department-run and sanctioned communications vehicles are clearly in the organization’s control, administered within department guidelines, and monitored with the expectation that content conforms to certain parameters of professionalism, respect being first and foremost. It is permissible for the university administration to request changes in response to community feedback. But when messages are posted to private accounts, the line of permissibility becomes a bit blurry.
Recently, in the northeastern United States, a department director came under fire for “Liking” and retweeting a few tweets from his personal account. Based on the content of the original tweets, it could be construed as supportive of the current U.S. president. He also had Liked and retweeted pro-gun rights content. The students searched the social media world and objected to the director’s actions and views he endorsed. In summary: he is no longer employed at the institution.
Regardless of one’s personal, political views on current or past presidents, gun rights, or other topics, every citizen of the world’s democracies has the right to express their opinion. Would students have objected if he had retweeted Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Liked a gun control organization on Facebook? Free speech—and the exchange of information and ideas—sits at the core of our higher education institutions’ missions and purpose. While public safety leaders’ expression of opinions on hot-button topics may lead folks to pause and wonder how we might carry out our sworn duties—simply expressing support for an idea is a fundamental human right.
Taking criticism from those who disagree with an opinion is also a central part of the expression of free speech. But when acting as a private citizen—making no connection to our work or our sworn duty—expressing an opinion independent of the color of law should not be grounds for employment action. Yet we may have this occur in our professional, leadership positions. Be forewarned—the reactions of our community may be acted upon in ways that a few years ago we would not have imagined. The jury remains out on whether this recent case is lawful; regardless, it is a reminder to all of us: we live in challenging times.