RI Firefighters Seek To Enjoin Enforcement of Social Media Policy

The initiation of a disciplinary investigation into social media posts by IAFF union officials in Tiverton, Rhode Island, has prompted a federal lawsuit accusing the town of wrongfully chilling the exercise of the firefighters’ First Amendment free speech rights.

Tiverton Firefighters, IAFF Local 1703 filed suit asking the US District Court for the District of Rhode Island to enjoin the town’s disciplinary investigation into the executive board and declare the fire department’s newly enacted social media policy to be unconstitutional. The suit also asks the court to strike down two provisions in the department’s rules that similarly restrict members’ free speech rights.

According to the complaint, the department adopted the new social media policy on October 12, 2023 in response to posts the union made about understaffing and excessive overtime due to unfilled positions. On the same day, the department informed members of the executive board they were under investigation for violating the October 12, 2023 policy.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • The Tiverton Fire Department has a minimum manning of 7 members per shift, as provided in a collective bargaining agreement between the plaintiff, Local 1703, and the Town.
  • Since January 1, 2023, 6 members of the 32 members of the Tiverton Fire Department have left the department for employment with other fire departments in Rhode Island.
  • As a result … the remaining members have been required to work additional hours, increasing the department’s overtime budget.
  • Under the decision of the Rhode Island Supreme Court in Narragansett v. I.A.F.F., Local 1589, 380 A.2d 521 (1977), issues of minimum manning must be bargained because minimum manning impacts the safety of firefighters.
  • Since the 6 members left the Tiverton Fire Department … Local 1703 has commented on a social media account concerning issues of safety and other issues of public concern.
  • In response to the Union’s social media postings concerning issues of safety and other issues of public concern, the Town of Tiverton, on October 12, 2023, enacted a social media policy.
  • The October 12, 2023 Social Media Policy violates the rights of Local 1703 under the first amendment to the United States Constitution for the following reasons:
    • “The policy prohibits Tiverton Fire Department personnel from ‘sharing, posting, transmitting, or otherwise disseminating any information to which they have access as a result of their official status of the Tiverton Fire Department without the expressed written permission from the Fire Chief or designee. This includes both on-duty and off duty.”
  • The provision cited above … violates the first amendment of the United States Constitution because requiring that a Tiverton firefighter, and member of Local 1703, first obtain permission from the Chief the defendant, Tiverton Fire Department, before “disseminating any information to which they have access as a result of their official status of the Tiverton Fire Department” is an impermissible prior restraint on permissible free speech.
  • There currently exists a Facebook webpage that is in the name of the Tiverton Firefighters’ Union, wherein members of Local 1703 have created “posts” that bring to public’s attention issues of staffing, manpower and the overall readiness of the Tiverton Fire Department to respond to calls for service.
  • Under the first amendment to the United States Constitution, the membership of Local 1703 has the right to make public statements, including Facebook “posts” on its Facebook webpage, concerning matters of public concern. See Providence Firefighters v. City of Providence, 26 F.Supp.2d 350 (D.R.I. 1998).

The Providence Firefighters case cited in the complaint should be dispositive of this case. It was a very clearly articulated decision that prohibits fire departments from requiring firefighters to get permission from the fire chief before speaking on matters of public concern as private citizens. Those who have been through my social media policy drafting class should reflect on how our model policy avoids this very issue through precise and nuanced language. Tiverton’s language is neither precise nor nuanced.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

Here is a copy of the Providence Firefighters case.

UPDATE: October 17, 2023: Well, that did not take long. Shortly after Local 1703 filed suit, the town rescinded the social media policy, and agreed to postpone the disciplinary interviews. Here is a Supplemental Memo submitted by the union’s counsel, Ed Roy.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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