Firefighter Loses Job Over Facebook Posts

Cape Cod firefighter Richard Doherty lost a job he'd held for 16 years because he ridiculed his own Bourne Fire Department's rules in Facebook postings, including some timestamped during the fireman's work shifts.

Cape Cod firefighter Richard Doherty lost a job he’d held for 16 years because he ridiculed his own Bourne Fire Department’s rules in Facebook postings, including some timestamped during the fireman’s work shifts.

Town Administrator Thomas Guerino of Bourne, Massachusetts fired Richard Doherty on Wednesday, after a series of three disciplinary hearings had occurred in late 2010.

The Bourne Courier quoted Guerino’s testimony:

Firefighter Doherty has repeatedly demonstrated that he cannot meet the requisite standards of the position he holds. He cannot function effectively within the fire department when he has demeaned other firefighters with vitriol. [Doherty’s Facebook postings reflect] disrespect to gay individuals, mentally challenged individuals, patriotic citizens, public officials or people who might have a viewpoint different from his. [The posts represent a] reckless decision [in judgment and were broadcast] further to an unknown audience… invit[ing] inquiry as to whether he feels immunized from consequences for his actions.

The local newspaper also quoted one of the three attorneys handling the disciplinary hearings that Doherty’s testimony “shows a consistent pattern of untruthfulness,” was “continually evasive and sarcastic,”and showed “a pervasive pattern of perjury, disrespect for authority and sworn testimony that was contrived and contemptuous.”

Free speech advocates will likely cry foul over the firing, but the Bourne Fire Department and the local government still have the legal right to act as they have, based on the state of current case law. A recent lawsuit filed by the National Labor Relations Board fell short of setting any precedent barring employers from terminating employees over Facebook posts, because the suit of court with concession on both sides –becauase the suit never went to court for a decision, other attorneys can’t make a reference to it while arguing before a judge or jury.

On the other hand, the American Civil Liberties Union has successfully gotten Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to temporarily stop asking prospective employees and staff undergoing re-certification for their Facebook logins. However, no court case is associated with this, and also the issue isn’t exactly about firing — the employer was researching workers’ possible ties to gangs, organized crime and terrorists.

Clearly, the issue of whether employers can hire and fire based on what people post on Facebook is something the legal community is actively figuring out right now. The general public may oppose potential censorship, but companies also have liabilities to protect.

What do stance do you think employers and the legal community ought to take regarding Facebook posts by current and prospective employees?