Module 4: Social Media Policy, Personal Use-Public Job


Facebook costume detail 1Objective: To provide information about what content should be included in a social media policy for public employees.

Why did you post THAT?

When crafting a social media policy and education for your workplace it is important to be very upfront with your staff about how personal online activities can directly impact their public employment. It seems that every month or so there is another story about a public safety officer, emergency medical technician, or someone from the fire service posting something, well, there’s no other word except STUPID, to their personal facebook page or twitter account. Examples of this behavior: a volunteer fireman in Maryland posted on his Facebook page (see story here) that he wanted to “Go set a dumpster on fire” when he didn’t receive a discount at a local fast food chain;  a paramedic in New York posted pictures of a diseased woman on his personal Facebook page; a  police officer was fired in Boston for posting racial slurs on his Facebook page about a baseball player; another police officer is under investigation in Los Angeles for posting pictures of a murder victim to his personal twitter account. The LA officer stated “that’s the same exact photo the news folks would have taken.”

The reason for confusion revolves around US citizens right to free speech and where the line is drawn between whether or not the employee represents their public employer, is speaking in a matter that is of “public concern” (e.g. whistle-blowing), or can claim their posts is “private.” Although there is not a huge amount of settled law in this area, some important precedents have been set regarding when public employees can be disciplined. One of the best resources we have found is this 30 page paper prepared for the IACP Center for Social Media “Social Networking in Law Enforcement Seminar” that details case law: LegalOfficerSectionIACP2010.

The State of Massachusetts Legal Guidance

Massachusetts Executive Office for Administration and Finance, Information Technology Division, General Counsel, has developed a Social Media Legal Guidance Toolkit. Exhibit 6: Social Media Participation Policy, addresses 3 uses: required work related use; personal use at work; personal use outside of work.

In addition to addressing personal use, the toolkit can be used as a sample policy for all legal aspects of using social media in the capacity of a public entity. Even though the kit’s main audience is Massachusetts State agencies, your local government can download the document and insert your own information. You can download that kit here: social media legal guidance. You can also access it via the State website here: Legal Guidance Toolkit. The toolkit includes:

  • Reviewing Third Party Provider’s Terms of Service
  • Updating Agency Website Policies
  • Training Agency Social Media Participants
    • Copyright
    • First Amendment
    • Confidentiality
    • Defamation
    • Attorney, Dr or other Professional Considerations
  • Meeting Relevant Legal Obligations
    • Records Retention
    • Open Meetings Law
    • Accessibility
    • 3rd Party Rights Considerations
    • Advertising/Endorsement Limitations
  • Questions

More Examples 

At a minimum your “codes of conduct” should include information about personal posting to social networks.  Remind staff that anything they post will likely be seen by everyone.  If you do not have a anything in writing yet, here is a great example from the US Air Force Social Media Guide for Airmen:

“In general, the Air Force views personal social media sites positively and respects your rights as Americans to use them to express yourself. However, by the nature of your profession, you are always on the record and must represent our core values. When you engage via social media, don’t do anything that will discredit yourself or the Air Force. Use your best judgment because your writing can have serious consequences. Remember that you are always on duty and your social media interactions are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Also, don’t forget your operations security (OPSEC) considerations.

Consider how a post can be interpreted by the public. Be cautious about crossing the line between funny and distasteful. If you have doubts about whether you should post some- thing, err on the side of caution. If the post in question concerns the Air Force, discuss the proposed post with your supervisor or your local PA office. Ultimately, you alone are responsible for what you post.”

This is a similar statement from the International Association Chief of Police Social Media hub:

“Personal Use. Content posted by law enforcement, even off-duty and under strict privacy settings, has the potential to be disseminated broadly and fall into the hands of defense attorneys, criminals, and members of the community. Any improper postings can ultimately affect an individual’s credibility, employment status, and their agency as a whole.”

Patient and Citizen Privacy Are Utmost Concern

If you could make one point with your staff it should be how they are responsible for protecting the privacy of citizens. In this regard, the policy you already have for electronic communications, such as email, could most likely just be amended to include social media sites.  The Mayo Clinic provides a good example:

“Follow all applicable Mayo Clinic policies. For example, you must not share confidential or proprietary information about Mayo Clinic and you must maintain patient privacy. Among the policies most pertinent to this discussion are those concerning patient confidentiality, government affairs, mutual respectpolitical activityComputer, E-mail & Internet Use, the Mayo Clinic Integrity Program, photography and video, and release of patient information to media.”

Massachusetts General Hospital policy statement also makes this point very clear:

“When using social media, be aware that existing hospital policies apply, in particular, those pertaining to patient privacy…”

Other resources:

Your Turn: Due to some organizations specifically stating that their policy cannot be made public, no responses will be shared verbatim. We will post general concepts and ideas only. 


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