Lawsuit filed by creator of Facebook news site warns public employers to beware the First Amendment when disciplining employees for their social media conduct

Posted by on Mar 20, 2014 in Employment and Labor, First Amendment, Social Media

“It’s my First Amendment right to say what I want!”  The First Amendment is commonly invoked to justify personal expression.  But did you know that the First Amendment applies only when the government is involved?  For example, the First Amendment wouldn’t prevent a private company from firing an employee for making offensive comments about the governor.  If the same employee worked for a government office, then the First Amendment might apply.  As a lawsuit recently filed against the County of Maui illustrates, the First Amendment adds a layer of complexity for public employers dealing with controversial social media activity of its employees.

The First Amendment Lawsuit Against Maui County

Neldon Mamuad is a volunteer Liquor Commissioner for Maui County and part-time aide to a Maui County Council member.  In July 2013, Mamuad started a Facebook fan page called “TAGUMAWatch,” named after a Maui police officer well-known for strict enforcement of parking and traffic violations.  The page was intended to enable Facebook users to post about “Taguma sightings” and share their thoughts about him.  TAGUMAWatch gained popularity quickly and evolved into a discussion forum on a variety of topics including news, traffic, and politics.

Mamuad claims that he didn’t publicize his involvement with TAGUMAWatch until a TV news story about the page named him as its creator.   Mamuad also didn’t identify himself as a County employee when posting to the page or suggest that he spoke for the County.

The County somehow linked Mamuad to the page.  Allegedly under pressure from the County, Mamuad changed the page’s name to MAUIWatch.  A few days later, Officer Taguma submitted a complaint to the County alleging harassment via the page.  After notifying Mamuad of the complaint and conducting an investigation, the County determined that Mamuad had engaged in harassment and cyber-bullying through social media and required him to enroll in an employee counseling program.

On March 3, 2014, Mamuad sued the County in federal court for violating his First Amendment rights.  As of the time of this post, Mamuad’s motion for a TRO was pending.

When Does Employee Discipline Violate the First Amendment?

Most forms of internet expression qualify as “speech” under the First Amendment.  That point has been driven home by recent legal developments,  including a court decision that Facebook “likes” are protected by the First Amendment, a Ninth Circuit opinion recognizing that bloggers have the same First Amendment protections as traditional journalists, dismissal of an appeal from the termination of a public school teacher, and a federal lawsuit filed by a gun rights group alleging that the Honolulu Police Department censored comments on its Facebook page.  Whenever the government is the one restricting speech, the First Amendment becomes relevant.

So how does a public employer know when it may discipline an employee for his or her social media conduct without violating the First Amendment?  The general test in the Ninth Circuit, as spelled out in Mamuad’s TRO motion, looks at these factors:

  1. Did the employee speak on a matter of public concern?
  2. Did the employee speak as a private citizen or public employee?
  3. Was the employee’s protected speech a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action?
  4. Did the government have an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from other members of the general public?
  5. Would the government have taken the adverse employment action even absent the protected speech?

Dahlia v. Rodriguez, 735 F.3d 1060, 1067 (9th Cir. 2013) (en banc).  For a court to find that employee discipline violates the First Amendment, the first and third question must be answered in the affirmative, the fourth and fifth question answered in the negative, and for the second question, the employee must have spoken as a private citizen.  The employee also has the burden to prove the first three factors.  If the employee is successful, then the burden shifts to the government to prove the fourth and fifth factors.

Applying this test to employee social media conduct isn’t simple, but it helps government employers assess whether the First Amendment counsels against disciplinary action.

Links:

Complaint in the Mamuad lawsuit
Motion for TRO in Mamuad lawsuit (w/o attached declarations and exhibits)

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