Free Speech Rights of Federal Employees & Social Media

From sharing photos and videos and checking up on your loved ones to staying up to date with current events, social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become part of your daily lives. Additionally, social media has also become an avenue for people to express their opinions on various matters, whether it’s politics and other public issues or private matters concerning personal relationships or even employment. 

While the free speech of private citizens and workers is protected by the First Amendment, federal or government employees have limited rights – both at work and on their personal time. The truth is that federal workers are only protected by the First Amendment if they are speaking as private citizens; however, they can be disciplined and fired for any speech that is part of their official job duties, according to a 2006 Supreme Court case (Garcetti v. Ceballos). 

The following are several guidelines government workers must follow to protect their employment status: 

  • When a government employee speaks through a government-run social media account, his/her speech is not protected by the First Amendment. 

  • Government workers may express themselves on their own private social media accounts, where they can freely speak about their private lives and even political speech if it is not part of their official job duties. 

  • When a government worker has a “public-facing” role because they frequently communicate and interact with the public, any speech they make –whether it’s about their jobs or a personal matter – can be interpreted as performing their official duties.  

If a federal employee decides to post on social media as a private citizen, such speech should be a matter of public concern, which relates to community, political, or social issues, according to the Supreme Court ruling in Pickering v. Board of Education. For instance, posts about government corruption or racial discrimination might be protected, but posting grievances about the daily incompetence or a federal office is not protected because it is a matter of private concern. 

However, if a government worker posts on his/her private account on a matter of public concern, the next question is if the post disrupts his/her relationship with his/her employer and its interest in efficiently fulfilling its public services. The court will determine a government employer’s interest by showing if the post interferes with the employee’s responsibilities, interferes with the working relationship between the employee who posted and those who were criticized in the post, creates “disharmonious relations” on the job, undermines a superior’s authority, or compromise the confidence and trust with other employees. 

Lastly, the Hatch Act of 1939 prevents federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities, such as campaigning on behalf or against certain political candidates on social media. 

If you believe you were wrongfully terminated by a federal agency because of a social media post, contact Pines Federal today at (888) 898-9902 to discuss your case with our legal team. 

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