This week there have been a number of stories that relate to some of my favorite topics. These include free speech and social media. Here's a summary of the various news items and links to read more.
FDNY is dealing with a bit of an evolving controversy over an order last month from Commissioner Salvatore Cassano that banned “material presenting opinions or viewpoints” inside the firehouse. When the union complained, it prompted a revised order. The latest order still has the union riled. Here are some excerpts from an article by Al Baker in The New York Times:
Stephen J. Cassidy, the union president, consulted Ronald L. Kuby, a civil rights lawyer, and put the department on notice that he believed that the order, issued Dec. 29, was a violation of his members’ constitutional rights to free expression, even in the workplace.
He then did what he said was a first for his labor organization: He issued a memo on Monday directing roughly 8,000 firefighters simply to ignore the order from the fire commissioner, Salvatore J. Cassano.
On Wednesday, two days after Mr. Cassidy issued his memo, a Fire Department spokesman acknowledged that the order was too broadly worded, and said a new directive had been issued. The spokesman, Francis X. Gribbon, said that fire officials did not intend to keep firefighters from bringing opinion materials into the firehouse; the order was meant to prohibit the posting of opinions on any walls in the firehouses. Posting unofficial materials on bulletin boards has always been prohibited.
But the new language was of even greater concern to Mr. Cassidy, who said he would fight any effort to ban the posting of any written materials that are not official business on the walls of the city’s 350 firehouses.
My non-legal mind reminds me of a similar story I covered in 1992 in the District of Columbia. Captain Larry Watts, with the help of IAFF Local 36 and the ACLU, was successful in court fighting disciplinary action after Watts posted a political cartoon in the firehouse that depicted well known athletes with some very public baggage and a firefighter. The caption read, "Kids! Find the positive role model". The cartoon was considered a problem by some because the athletes were black. Click here to read more about Watts v. Alfred.
Twenty-six of 28 recruits for the Jackson Fire Department failed a State Certification exam. So, what does that story have to do with free speech or social media? Nice of you to ask. After the word leaked out on the Facebook page of a former assistant chief, and then reported on Tuesday in the Jackson press and by my friend Bill Schumm at Firegeezer, an even more interesting story surfaced on Wednesday. Here are details from ClarionLedger.com's Therese Apel:
Jackson Fire Chief Raymond McNulty has put his firefighters on notice not to post inaccurate information or comments harmful to the department on their social network sites.
They also cannot post photos of themselves in uniform or posing with city equipment.
McNulty confirmed in an email the number of recruits receiving their certification on the first try. He, however, would not grant an interview to The Clarion-Ledger.
When asked in writing about the memo he responded, "This memo was established to make our firefighters aware of the official rules and regulations of the City of Jackson."
City spokesman Chris Mims said the city does not have a social media policy yet.
McNulty says in his memo that firefighters shouldn't publicly discuss information that could be detrimental to JFD or its employees; shouldn't post content that is inconsistent with the duties and ethics of a firefighter, such as racist or sexist comments or rumors; and shouldn't use aliases.
In addition, McNulty advises his firefighters to clearly state that what they write is their own opinion and not that of the department.
Officers are allowed to comment on issues of public concern but not personal grievances.
Firefighters also are encouraged not to post information regarding off-duty activities that may bring their reputation or that of the department into question.
South Bend, Indiana
Captain Tony Schelske faces demotion and a suspension over cell phone video he took at a January 6 apartment fire and posted on YouTube. Schelske has the right to appeal after the Board of Public Safety upheld Chief Howard Buchanon's recommendation to bust Schelske back to first-class firefighter and give him a nine-day suspension.
“I made it clear to all captains that this is something you don’t do, and he did it,” Buchanon said. “He had a task to do, and he wasn’t doing it. Instead he was shooting video.”
Buchanon said the punishment has less to do with social media and more to do with the fact he was not doing his job while he was recording the fire.
“He was supposed to be working,” he said. “You’re in special assignment to be captain. We hold you to a higher standard.”
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