Philadelphia cops fired for offensive Facebook posts can pursue First Amendment claim, court rules

A dozen Philadelphia police officers who were fired or suspended for racist and violent social media posts can sue the city, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated, an appeals court has heard. federal.

The officers’ social media accounts were included in a database, released in 2019, that listed thousands of bigoted or violent posts by active duty and former police officers in several states.

In Philadelphia, nearly 200 officers were disciplined, 15 of whom were forced off the job. Twelve officers later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, claiming the police department retaliated against them for exercising their First Amendment rights.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last year, accepting the city’s argument that the officer positions undermined public trust in the department and violated the city’s social media policy.

The plaintiffs were “playing racist bingo, making fun of as many ethnic or religious groups as possible,” U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker wrote last year.

In a ruling on Thursday, the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals said it recognized the content was ‘offensive, racist and violent’, adding that it ‘does not condone use by officers social media to mock, denigrate and threaten the very communities they are sworn to protect.

“Positions like officers have the ability to confirm the community’s worst fears about bias in policing,” the three-judge panel wrote.

But the court said Tucker’s decision to dismiss the case was premature, given what he said was a lack of clarity about where some of the messages came from, which messages were being disciplined by the service. police, and “no frills speculation” about the impact of the messages.

The court sent the case back to the lower court, saying the officers could continue to pursue their rights while noting that they “undoubtedly face a steep climb to finally prove their case”.

The Facebook posts, which were all public, were discovered by a team of researchers who spent two years examining the personal accounts of police officers from Arizona to Florida. They found officers denigrating immigrants and Muslims, promoting racist stereotypes, identifying with right-wing militias and, above all, glorifying police brutality.

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