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Then there was the so-called “Poolgate” incident – despite a historic weather emergency on June 29, 2012, an in-service engine company was sent on a non-emergency pool-filling assignment by someone at headquarters. An investigation resulted in assurances that such activities would not occur again, followed just days later by a second incident dubbed “Poolgate II.”
In October, an arbitrator concluded that DCFEMS and the chief wrongfully transferred the president of the union local last year in retaliation for union activities.
DCFEMS also saw three employment rulings handed down in 2012 that went in favor of the department and a former chief. The cases – Cusick v. District of Columbia, Coleman v. District of Columbia and Bowyer v. District of Columbia – arose out of disciplinary actions in which employees alleged the department was guilty of race, gender or whistleblower discrimination.
The most significant case
If there were one case in 2012 that I must point to as being the most significant to firefighters everywhere, it would be the case of Miami-Dade, FL, Fire Rescue Captain Brian Beckmann, whose Facebook remarks in April set off a firestorm of controversy.
In the aftermath of the shooting of a black youth, Trevon Martin, in Sanford, Beckmann posted a Facebook comment that was perceived by many as evidencing racism or at least racial insensitivity. Amid a public outcry for his termination, Beckmann was demoted. He is presently appealing that decision.
Beckmann posted the comments while off duty on his personal Facebook page, engaging in a social commentary on the role that parenting might have played in the shooting. Unlike some of the other First Amendment cases mentioned above, Beckmann’s remarks had no direct relationship to his employment, as the shooting occurred hundreds of miles away in a different community. Yet the remarks offended citizens in Metro Dade and coworkers alike.
The challenge in the Beckmann case is one that should concern all firefighters – black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, Gentile, Jewish or Muslim: When do we have the right to speak our minds – and when does a fire department as an employer have the right to say that we have stepped over the line? The emergence of social media as the communication platform of choice for many firefighters makes the answer to this question all the more urgent.
Beckmann’s case may well have to reach the U.S. Supreme Court before a definitive answer is known. Firefighters and chiefs would all be well served if the law governing the First Amendment rights of public employees was clarified.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Then again, that was back in the days before the Internet or Facebook!
Of all the cases from 2012, Beckmann’s is the one to watch in 2013. n