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Baltimore County cracks down on workers' online behavior as political season heats up

As the political season heats up, Baltimore County is warning government employees that it plans to enforce a long-standing policy against "brutal or offensive" behavior in the workplace and on private time, including on social media.

County officials say the increasing coarseness of online behavior, particularly about the presidential election, led them to remind employees of the policy and require supervisors to implement it.

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"Social media, while it has encouraged in many cases lively dialogue, it also at times promotes a passion that is very close to walking a line in terms of how we communicate with one another," said Don Mohler, spokesman and chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

Mohler said the county knows that people are increasingly passionate about political and social issues "and how comfortable the public is in sharing those passions in a public forum, whether it be on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, you name it."

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While freedom of speech is a bedrock of American democracy, not all speech is protected under the First Amendment. Numerous court cases have held that employers — including governments — can discipline workers for things they say, according to Baltimore County Attorney Michael Field.

For example, a county employee who hints at violence toward a member of the public or another employee would be in violation of the policy, he said. The same goes for someone who uses derogatory language or implies a member of the public wouldn't get the same service or treatment from the county as another person.

But taking stances on divisive issues would still be allowed.

"If someone writes, 'I don't believe in Black Lives Matter' or 'All lives matter,' that is clearly protected speech, and it's not brutal or offensive," Field said.

The county sent a memo to all employees recently to alert them to the policy and to warn that it would be enforced. The memo, signed by County Administrative Officer Fred Homan, says the county will take a "zero-tolerance approach" to violations of the policy.

"It is not our intention to eliminate humor or free political expression from your personal lives," Homan wrote.

The memo warns employees that even what they say on their personal social media accounts and in their personal time can affect their job status.

County officials said they had informal talks with union leaders before issuing the memo to the county's 8,000 employees.

John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, which represents about 1,500 county workers, said he's aware of the memo but declined to comment on it.

The policy has rarely been enforced in the past. But supervisors are now required to investigate any reports of possible policy violations. Supervisors won't be responsible for watching social media to try and ferret out offenders.

"This is not Big Brother," Mohler said. "We're not monitoring a thing. We're not surfing social media sites to see who is saying what. It will be complaint-driven."

Employees who are in violation of the policy can be reprimanded with "progressive discipline," ranging from a verbal warning up to dismissal. Employees who are members of unions can file grievances to challenge disciplinary decisions.

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The county Fire Department put a new social media policy into place last year. The guidelines prohibit members from posting images of departmental uniforms, vehicles and other property "that present the Fire Department in a negative or unprofessional light."

Among other rules, fire employees also are not allowed to post things that constitute harassment, hate speech or libel.

The Police Department also is working on a new policy.

"Both of these departments have been working to clarify these issues for employees for some time," said Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for the police and fire agencies. "We find that they are anxious or hungry for information that clarifies where the boundaries are."

David Rose, second vice president for the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said he does not know of any police officers being disciplined for social media use in recent yeas.

"Every once in a while, I'll have someone that might call me and say, 'I was going to post this thing on social media — what do you think about it?'" he said. "My remark has always been, if you need to ask that question, don't post it."

In Baltimore, a police lieutenant and the police union are suing the Police Department and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis over the agency's social media policy.

Lt. Victor Gearhart, who was a patrol shift commander, was reassigned to work building security after activists demanded the department fire him for what they considered offensive tweets on his personal account. The lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court.

Field said the county's policy, which has been on the books since 1958, is narrowly written to apply only to "brutal or offensive" speech.

"There's no circumstance under which being brutal or using epithets is protected speech," Field said.

In December 2014, a county 911 employee did not face discipline when she posted on her Facebook page that "thugs" are more trustworthy than "any policeman." She said she feared for her son's safety when interacting with police because he is black.

At the time, Kamenetz defended the employee's right to speak out on the issue but urged people to discuss the issue in a "positive and productive manner." The employee faced strong backlash and eventually resigned from her job.

Conduct policies like Baltimore County's are generally found to be legal when challenged in court, said Eric B. Easton, professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Law, who specializes in media law, including First Amendment issues.

Government employers usually can't restrict an employee's speech on purely private matters, such as complaining about a relative. But on matters of "public interest," the government can discipline employees for what they say, Easton said.

"They're going to balance what I had to say and my right to say it against the efficiency and effectiveness of the government," Easton said. "If what I say impairs discipline in my agency, has a detrimental effect on the mission of my agency, they can regulate that."

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