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Another example of public employees' First Amendment rights

In a prior post, we warned our readers of the dangers of social media rants, particularly after being terminated. We also wrote on how a union member was wrongfully fired after an expletive laced post circulated among his fellow employees and up to management.

Lawsuits over employment actions taken after social media posts are increasing, and in some cases Plaintiff’s receive hefty awards. The case involving a Charlotte, North Carolina arson investigator that should serve as a stark reminder that an employee’s social media posts may be protected speech, even though they may be controversial or disrespectful. 

The investigator was reportedly fired for her comments following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2015 stemming from the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a white police officer. She essentially criticized those who were outraged about the shooting and shared a meme of President Obama, basically blaming him for the country’s worsening tension and racial divide. Her supervisors learned of the post and fired her shortly thereafter, reasoning that her post was offensive and had tarnished the city’s reputation.

The investigator sued, claiming that the city’s reasoning was pretext to mask the real reason for her firing: her role as a whistleblower. She previously complained about the conditions of a building that was going to be a new office for arson investigators. She reportedly raised safety concerns that were not addressed.

After a week-long trial, a jury agreed with her and awarded her $1.5 million. The City of Charlotte has not indicated whether it will appeal the verdict, but it exemplifies the notion that public employees generally cannot be fired for voicing their opinions over social media. 

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