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The First Amendment and social media: What firefighters need to know

Several firefighters have faced consequences following protest-related posts on social media, but some cite their right to free speech as protection

By Marc Bashoor

Coast to coast within our ranks, we’ve been tracking the life-altering, job-altering consequences for the things people have said, for the social media posts that they’ve made, or maybe just someone else’s information that they forward on.

I’ve talked to some people who say, “Let those people say whatever they want to say; those are the people we need to get rid of.” I’ve talked to others who say they have the First Amendment right to free speech; you can’t tell them what to say.

Let’s look at the First Amendment and see what it actually says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Our founding fathers did a fantastic job framing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the tenets of that have been upheld in the Supreme Court numerous times as recently as 2017. But the government did not grant you the right to the freedom from consequence. The government did not grant you the right to a job or a specific employer. The First Amendment is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

As chiefs and leaders, we need to make sure that we are upholding the public trust, that we ourselves have the trust, honor and ethics, that we’re exercising those that are necessary to maintain that public trust.

Maybe it’s just time to back away from the keyboard.

The First Amendment does not grant you the right to the freedom from consequence. So as you think about the next thing that you want to comment on or that you want to talk about, think about that public trust. Think about your own trust, honor and ethics, and think about the consequences of what you’re getting ready to do, and maybe it is just time to back away from the keyboard.

As chiefs we should be encouraging and developing our people to have engagement. Right now that engagement needs to be out in the community and needs to be establishing those partnerships in those relationships, and it needs to be building on the trust that’s inherently part of the fire and EMS service. We need to encourage our staff to use these times as more teachable moments – less engagement at the keyboard, more engagement out in the community.

Is it your time to back away from the keyboard?

Chief Marc S. Bashoor joined the Lexipol team in 2018, serving as the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief executive editor and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board. With 40 years in emergency services, Chief Bashoor previously served as public safety director in Highlands County, Florida; as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department; and as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Chief Bashoor assisted the NFPA with fire service missions in Brazil and China, and has presented at many industry conferences and trade shows. He has contributed to several industry publications. He is a National Pro-board certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III and Fire Instructor. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.