Late last year, the Lexipol Fire team got into a discussion about the biggest challenges facing the fire service in 2019, and what kind of progress we could expect to make on them.
The conversation covered many challenges, but the one I want to focus on here is the issue of firefighter freedom of speech. We live in a country that places great value on freedom of speech; it’s no coincidence this was the first amendment made to the Constitution. But it’s not nearly as simple as it seems. And I have seen over and over again firefighters misunderstanding the concept of freedom of speech and making potentially career-ending decisions as a result.
But let’s take a step back. Have you ever considered how wonderful it is that we can talk, write, draw, sing—or any of the countless ways we communicate? From liking a post on Facebook to voting for our chosen candidate, we have innumerable ways to make our opinions heard. And, with some narrow exceptions, our laws guarantee we won’t be jailed or otherwise silenced for voicing how we feel.
Having the right to do something and it being the right thing to do are often two distinct things.
But how far is too far with this freedom? Having the right to do something and it being the right thing to do are often two distinct things. In the fire service, I think this comes into play in two key areas.
- Gossip. Did you know the Greek word diabolos can mean both “devil” and “gossip”? I don’t think that’s a coincidence! Here in California, we firefighters are familiar with another “devil” term: the Diablo winds, also known as Santa Anas. Just as the devil winds fan the flames of wildfires, spreading destruction far and wide, gossip can cause personal destruction, ruining reputations, ending friendships and betraying trust. Yes, our freedom of speech rights mean we will likely not face legal repercussions for spreading gossip or engaging in other hurtful conversation, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be other consequences. This is something I think firefighters don’t always realize—until it’s too late.
- Unprotected speech. While gossip can get firefighters into trouble on a personal level, it’s more often unprotected speech that gets us into trouble professionally. The government can only limit your speech under the narrowest of circumstances. What your employer can do is a whole different issue. That’s why we see firefighters getting fired for what they post on social media. But it’s not just Facebook where we need to exercise caution. A firefighter who speaks out at a city council meeting without the chief’s approval can be found in violation of the department’s code of conduct or other policy. A lot of it rests on whether you’re speaking as a private citizen or as a spokesperson for the department—a line that is hardly ever black and white.
So why do I think free speech is such a crucial issue for firefighters in 2019? If we’re going to continue to build a fire service that supports and includes many kinds of people, we must speak in a respectful manner. At the same time, if we’re going to attract and keep young firefighters, we must help them navigate the complexities of free speech as a public employee—and that means striking a balance where firefighters feel they have avenues to express themselves, but without jeopardizing the trust the public places in us to treat every customer equally.
Freedom of speech or not, we should take our words very seriously. Be someone who protects reputations, the truth and other people with your words. Embrace both the right and the responsibility.
Looking for more guidance on firefighter free speech issues? Check out this explainer.