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A reader on free speech in & around the firehouse including social & not so social media. News items from FDNY, Jackson FD & South Bend FD.

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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.

New York, New York

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.

Curt Varone has links to the series of orders and memos and gives us the legal perspective at

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.

Jackson, Mississippi

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'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. wrote about this earlier in the week.

Here as an excerpt from an article by Tom Moor at the South Bend Tribune:

“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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Comments - Add Yours

  • Former Chief

    So what the heck is going on in this Country?  There is this thing called the US Constitution, that guarantees freedom of speech.  I realize we all need to use discretion in the work place, but come on people.  Commissioner Cassano is really off base on this one.  I would like to know what prompted this memo.  The NY Times article doesn't state that.  As far as Jackson, MS is concerned, reading the comments on that article leads me to believe they have much bigger problems they're trying to keep quiet.  As far as South Bend is concerned, I'm afraid Capt. Schelske is going to take the hit on that one.  If there is a clear policy, which there needs to be, and he violated it, he has no defense.  It would be nice if we didn't have to have policies on social media and what can and can't be posted, but we can't always rely on our member's common sense because they don't always have that.

  • Anonymous

    When are people going to realize that just because you joined or were hired by an organization you DID NOT give up your freedom of speech…should we watch our speech? Sure but it is unacceptable to prohibit these actions.
    Hitler,Stalin, Fire Chiefs the great dictators of our time!

  • Fire21

    If I know national defense secrets, do I have the freedom of speech to blab the info to the world?  No.  Is that restriction of my freedom to speak?  No, because it's restricted by law.
    The same applies for workplaces.  Among other things, rules are formed to limit personal confrontations, to enhance safety, and to protect the work place's image.  If employees don't want to abide by these rules, no-one is forcing them to work there.
    As Former Chief alluded to, common sense is severely lacking in our society today.  In it's absence, rules and regulations are needed to maintain civility.  We don't always know what's going to be complimentary or detrimental to our work place.  Intelligent people would consider talking with higher-ups before posting.  That's not restriction of freedom of speech…that's consideration of potential effects.

    • Former Chief

      Good points 21.  I don't disagree on having rules governing the work place, it just seemed to me that this particular FDNY directive was quite broad.  I would like to know what prompted it.  That may help to explain.  Seems like there is a lot more going on in Jackson, MS based on the newspaper article and associated comments, and based on what we read, the Captain in South Bend probably violated the FD's policy.