Social media is a virtual world that can have real-life consequences. Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms are considered public space, and controversial statements from employees can have negative effects on their employer.
The Times inquired about social media policies at local municipalities, police and fire departments, school districts and a private business.
Fire Chief Ryan Volz said they’ve had issues in the past with firefighters posting inappropriate things on Facebook. He’s gotten a few calls from residents complaining about firefighters’ online conduct.
“Being in the public eye as a firefighter, police, or anyone in public safety, you should watch what you say. I know there’s freedom of speech, but people say things they shouldn’t,” he said.
The Fenton Township Fire Department social media policy allows for the use of department-sanctioned social media pages that display the logo, contact information for the department for the department and more. When it comes to personal use, personnel are allowed to express themselves as private citizens as long as it does not impede their work.
Staff is cautioned that, as public employees, their speech on or off duty may not be protected under the First Amendment, and discipline is possible if what they post is detrimental to the department.
They cannot disseminate any information they have access to due to their job without permission, and they are cautioned to not display department logo, uniforms or items that would identify them as a firefighter of that department without permission.
Volz said if they respond to a crash, his firefighters cannot take photos of the wreck and post it on social media.
Personnel cannot post obscene content, show bias against any protected class of individuals, make statements or endorsements without permission, publish falsehoods or anything deemed offensive by a reasonable person. Other prohibited content includes using someone’s likeness, name or personal attributes without permission of the owner.
“I think all municipalities should have something in regards to social media in this day and age with the technology we have,” he said. “It protects the township. It protects the department. They’re representing the township and they shouldn’t be complaining about the township online. They can go to the board meetings and speak.”
School districts have rules for employees and students when it comes to social media.
The Linden Board of Education recently adopted social media standards for staff and students, which state that students can use social media during school if it’s done for educational purposes with permission from the teacher. The policy also states that staff will monitor students’ use online activities while at school, and teach students about appropriate online behavior on social media, chat rooms and cyberbullying awareness.
Staff is allowed to use social media for educational purposes, approved by the superintendent. Many teachers post on Twitter what students are working on that day, what awards their students receive and more. Staff is allowed to use social media for private use.
Students are required to fill out a form stating that they understand the terms of their handbooks, which may contain a social media policy, and employees must follow district rules.
At Linden, the handbook states that social networking or electronic communications between staff and students must be professional and not cross over into personal lives.
Any web pages created by students or staff cannot contain any personal information about the students, nor can it contain any abusive, obscene or inappropriate language or links to inappropriate chat rooms. The policy states that the district can take disciplinary action or “exercise editorial control over the style and content of student speech on District-approved social media” if it violates the rules.
These district-approved sites may also be considered public records or student records. The policy does not mention after-school use of social media.
Many of the stipulations in these above policy has been adopted by the Lake Fenton Community School District. The Blue Devils also have a statement on employee’s personal use of social media, which reads, “While the board respects its employees’ First Amendment rights, those rights do not include permission to post inflammatory comments that could compromise the district’s mission, undermine staff relationships, or cause a substantial disruption to the school environment.”
This includes conduct off school property and on the employee’s private computer as well.
Lake Fenton Superintendent Julie Williams said, “School districts do have the ability to discipline students for online activity outside the normal day if it creates a substantial disruption to the school environment or creates a safety concern for any of our students.”