Sheriff's Deputy Sues Over New HCSO Social Media Policy
If you're a Harris County Sheriff's Office employee, good luck sticking to the new restrictions put in place by the HCSO higher-ups that dictate what you can and can't post on social media.
Under the new policy, HCSO employees risk disciplinary action if their Facebook or Twitter posts "cause undue embarrassment or damage the reputation of and/or erode the public's confidence" in the sheriff's office. Posts containing any HCSO logos, badges or personal photographs that show employees in HCSO garb or uniform are prohibited without prior approval from a chief. Also: "speech containing crude, blasphemy (sic), negative, or untrue claims about the HCSO and/or any HCSO personnel is forbidden and therefore will be grounds for disciplinary action."
Similarly, HCSO employees now face disciplinary action for any comments on social media that "negatively affect the public perception of the HCSO."
Sound overly broad to you? It does to Harris County sheriff's deputy Carl Pittman, who sued Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia in federal court Monday over the 15-page policy implemented by HCSO last month. Pittman argues in his lawsuit that HCSO's new policy is chock-full of language that unlawfully curtails employees' First Amendment rights to free speech.
"This policy is a clear violation of the protections afforded by the First Amendment," Pittman told the Press Monday. "It says you can't say anything that might be embarrassing for the sheriff or the sheriff's office. That's just going way too far."
Pittman, of course, might have mixed motives for suing the sitting sheriff. He joined the field of Republican primary candidates hoping to challenge Garcia, a Democrat, in the 2012 general election (Louis Guthrie ultimately won the GOP primary but lost to Garcia in the general). Pittman openly admits "it is my intention to run in 2016," and says he fears the new social media policy might bar him from openly criticizing the sheriff in any future campaign.
"If I want to comment on something that's in the news or something the sheriff has done, if I want to add my two cents as a citizen, this policy seems to bar me from doing that," Pittman told the Press. "It bothers me when you start to try to silence people away from work."
HCSO responded to the lawsuit Monday with a statement saying the new policy was modeled after similar policies from other major law enforcement agencies across the country. "It has been long accepted and expected that public employees are held to a greater standard of conduct, whether on or off duty," the statement reads.
We asked how HCSO supervisors decide whether employees are permitted to look ...well, like HCSO employees in photos they post to their own social media accounts (the policy already contains rules prohibiting any photos that might out an undercover officer). We also asked whether the policy, as implemented, might preclude HCSO employees from using their own social media accounts to publicly disagree with the sheriff or speak out publicly against any policies and actions of HCSO. We'll update this post if and when HCSO answers our questions.
Skip down to page 16 of the lawsuit to read new policy in full: