Social Media Posts and the Cowards Way Out

Today’s burning question: I am a fire chief and I want to know if I can discipline a firefighter for the comments his wife is posting on social media that demean and disparage me and the fire department, because I know the comments are coming from him? I consider this to be disparagement “by proxy” – a way for this firefighter to make negative comments on social media, making it appear he is not the person posting. It is hurtful to the organization and needs to be stopped. It is outrageous to think he can legally get away with this day after day after day. She is conveying his thoughts and everyone knows it. It seems to me if people find out they can do this, everyone will start doing it.

Answer: Ah yes, the proverbial “coward’s way out”: using one’s spouse as a mouthpiece to criticize the fire chief and the fire department.

I am also assuming you have no proof that it is the firefighter himself that is doing the posting. In the absence of proof that your firefighter is doing the posting, there is really no way to discipline him for the postings that appear in his wife’s name. Even if you had proof, in fact even if the firefighter posted the comments in his own name, the firefighter may have some 1st Amendment protection for his comments. But let’s leave that to another post.

Your frustration over these posts is understandable, but think about this: Sometimes at fires we get tunnel vision… and when that happens we are more apt to get killed or injured because our narrow focus causes us to miss problems that are right there in front of us….. Sometimes when it comes to administrative stuff like this we get a different kind of tunnel vision… but it is tunnel vision none the less.

You may not like this situation with the wife of member posting disparaging comments – but think of the nightmare you would have if your boss could hold you responsible for the things your wife says/does. And why stop there with a spouse… Why couldn’t you be disciplined for things that other relatives, friends and perhaps neighbors say in social media if your boss suspects that you are behind what is being posted….

Think of the nightmare you would have as fire chief if FF A’s spouse could get FF A in trouble (or fired) during a nasty divorce… or perhaps during a nasty custody battle… or maybe just during moment of anger…

Do you really think you want to have the power to discipline a firefighter for something his wife posts?

As for the risk of encouraging others to take the cowards way out, normal well-adjusted people would not be encouraged to post negative things about the fire department they work for because they recognize that it reflects back on themselves… Like I tell my own firefighters when they whine about silly stuff – “Only an idiot would stay here and continue to work under such conditions…”. They laugh – but they get the point. If you go on social media and publicly say my fire department sucks… then a fair question is: why are you still there? Only a loser would stay in such a terrible situation! By posting negative crap about one’s own department the poster him/herself is acknowledging he/she is a loser… (in this case your firefighter’s wife is in essence saying her husband is a loser)…

While it may be hard to see this reality objectively when you are the one receiving the insults, other people/the general public can see through that kind of nonsense… just like you can see through it when it’s something you can be objective about: a police officer who repeatedly criticizes the police chief and the police department in social media, a teacher who repeatedly criticizes the school system and the superintendent in social media, or a football player who repeatedly criticizes his coach and team in social media. People recognize that there must be something wrong with folks who post negative crap day after day. So for that reason, I would not worry about others being encouraged to follow suit.

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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