Colleton County, South Carolina paramedic and firefighter Jason Brown was fired earlier this month because of a video he posted on Facebook. Brown’s situation is similar to an increasing number of disciplinary actions being taken against firefighters for social networking. The case shows the challenge that fire service leaders and firefighters face in dealing with social media issues.
What appears to be uncontroverted is that Brown created an animated video at a web site, xtranormal.com, on which you can create cartoon-like characters, type in a script, and the characters will speak in a robotic-like language. The video involved two characters, a white firefighter and a black doctor, set in the emergency department of a hospital. That is about all the parties can agree on.
Brown claims he had no evil intent, did not intend for the video to depict his department or the local hospital, and did not intend to insult anyone. However, Brown’s dismissal letter said "This video has created an embarrassing situation for this department, our public image and the cooperative relationship we enjoy with Colleton Medical Center. It reflects poorly on you and Colleton County." The letter also accuses Brown of producing a “derogatory video”. The video depicted the doctor in an unflattering light.
The problem with many of the cases like Brown’s, is that fire departments, by and large, have no rules and regulations pertaining to social media and social networking. As such, fire chiefs who are upset with something a firefighter posts online, must make a case of “conduct unbecoming”, “dishonorable behavior” or some similar catch-all regulation. Such cases run into all sorts of legal challenges because “conduct unbecoming” is inherently vague and subject to interpretation. The United States Supreme Court as said repeatedly that rules and regulations are invalid if they forbid or require the doing of an act "in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess as to its meaning and differ as to its application." Zwickler v. Kota (1967)
Fire departments need to have written policies to deal with social networking issues for the benefit of the department, as well as for the benefit of the members. If Colleton County had a clear policy, there would be no guesswork about what is and is not permitted, and whether Brown's video crossed the line. Firefighters deserve to know the rules beforehand, and not have to guess about what is and is not permissable.
Fire service leaders should be under no illusions – cases like Brown’s are going to increase. We are seeing the very beginning of what will be a very large problem that can either be effectively managed…. or ignored… until it cannot be ignored.