Toronto Fire Terminates Three For Reposting South Park Comments

Three Toronto firefighters have become the latest fire service cyber-casualties, terminated over tweets their fire chief said violated city policy.

Matt Bowman, Lawaun Edwards, and a third firefighter whose identify has not been released were terminated today over posts that were made on Twitter last August. Bowman and Edwards had been suspended with pay while the department investigation proceeded. According to news reports the offending tweets included:

  • "Reject a woman and she will never let it go. One of the many defects of their kind. Also weak arms."
  • "Would swat her in the back of the head been considered abuse or a way to reset the brain?"

Toronto Fire Chief Jim Sales referred to the comments as "not in any way acceptable for city employees and will not be condoned by Toronto Fire Services or the City of Toronto."

According to the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Association, the comments are actually quotes from the cartoon comedy, South Park. "The Association does not believe that the city has investigated this matter properly or considered the facts that were raised during the course of the meetings between the parties." The union has vowed to appeal the discipline.

Given the tenor of the chief’s remarks, it would not appear he was concerned about the quoted language violating South Park’s copyright… OK, lawyer's joke… But seriously… the case is yet another example of different groups having differing levels of comfort with what is said and done in social media.

If there is a Canadian attorney out their willing to weigh in, I would be interested in learning a bit more about your equivalent to our First Amendment, and the right to free speech.

While we do not know all of the offensive comments that were posted by the firefighters – it would be difficult in the US to sustain a termination against public employees for comments like those posted above assuming the comments were made as private citizens and had no real impact on the mission and function of the fire department. In order to regulate an employees’ personal speech an employer would have to show a compelling governmental interest. That is a not an easy task!

If there were a connection to work (ie. hazing or harassing co-workers; discussions of work related matters, etc.), an employer would have a stronger basis to regulate employee speech.

The case also points out the need for clear policies and training so that both sides (labor and management) can agree before-hand where the boundaries are to be drawn. Making the rules up after the fact all too often results in severe punishment being handed down – punishment that is not based on merits of the offense – but rather on whether the story about the post has become so widely known – that management is under intense pressure to “do something”… which often results in firefighters getting fired… According to news reports the Toronto Fire Department did not have its own social media policy, but Chief Sales claims the city’s social media policy is none-the-less applicable.

Here is more on the Toronto case.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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