Social Media and Protest
Legal Guidance Memorandum
To: Fedrick Ingram, President and Officers Local Leaders, FEA Florida Education Association
From: Kimberly Clark Menchion, Esquire General Counsel
Date: June 2, 2020
Re: Social Media and Protest
The Florida Education Association recognizes the context of the moment which incorporates dealing with a worldwide pandemic, the gravity of the death of George Floyd as witnessed on videos, and social unrest in the land. Many people are taking to social media to speak their convictions and say their piece. BUT WAIT! You are a Public Employee. BEFORE YOU DO PLEASE READ ON:
Teachers can be disciplined for their private speech on private social media sites. The Legal Office has seen cases with teachers who post on their private pages—with no students or parents given access—and someone turns them in for inappropriate post. Your First Amendment Rights are not absolute – there are more considerations.
Tips to Remember:
- Your First Amendment rights are strongest when you are speaking as a citizen on matters of public concern. Be clear that you are doing so as individuals and not as school employees or representatives of your schools. This can still be tricky territory if you have in your profile that you are an educator or employed by a particular school. Focus your public-facing speech on broader policies and interests like Black Lives Matter and how to make a positive difference in your community—and stay away from posting anything connected to your work.
- Tone and language matter. Schools can prohibit or discipline speech that disrupts the school community. Offensive or disrespectful speech about your colleagues, students or administrators is much more likely to disrupt the community. You must stay away from inflammatory, offensive language, urging violence, and posting racially-offensive posts. Regardless, the community knows you as an educator and can impute your language to your employer, which may give adequate grounds for discipline.
- Maintaining boundaries between your work and personal communications can help protect your speech under the First Amendment. Always avoid using school-provided devices and accounts for personal use and personal devices and accounts for school use. Avoid connecting with students on your personal phone or social media accounts.
FEA Legal certainly understands that you may want to be vocal during this very important time in our history, but we urge you to be very careful. FEA Legal emphasizes using strict privacy settings and ensuring that the people who have access to your post are actually friends outside of work—not just colleagues. As a teacher, the state of Florida holds you to a higher moral standard than that of a regular citizen. This is true even during summer break and outside of school hours. This means no Facebook fighting, no bigotry, no threats of violence, etc.