Columbia getting social media policy after Facebook postings, 3 firings

Black Lives Matter protesters rally at the SC State House late on July 10.
Black Lives Matter protesters rally at the SC State House late on July 10. mwalsh@thestate.com

Columbia City Hall is developing new guidelines for what is acceptable for city workers to say on social media, including when using their personal accounts.

Last week, three firefighters were fired over statements they made from their personal Facebook accounts about Black Lives Matter protesters who had blocked a major access route to the city on July 10.

City manager Teresa Wilson said Wednesday the new policy will be more specific than current rules and will be in tandem with department policies for police and firefighters.

The citywide policy, which she said was in the works before the July 10 rally, will be in effect within two weeks. It will spell out punishments that will range from reprimands to terminations, she said. Wilson would not release a draft version, saying it remains under review by the city’s legal staff.

What I, as manager, think is common sense has got to be clearly laid out for employees.”

Columbia city manager Teresa Wilson

“What I, as manager, think is common sense has got to be clearly laid out for employees,” she said. “We’re dealing with a different generation. There needed to be firmer social media policies.

“There have just been (previous) incidents with CPD (Columbia Police Department) and fire where we felt we had to deal with it specifically.” She did not elaborate.

Many cities and towns in South Carolina have social media policies that date at least to 2011, said Scott Slatton of the state Municipal Association. He did not have a list, but said the policies vary widely and inquiries from municipalities have shot up recently.

“This, especially since the Black Lives Matter stuff in Columbia, has spurred a lot of interest,” Slatton said.

The Columbia Police Department adopted a policy in December 2014 after Wilson hired Skip Holbrook as chief. The two-page policy states that the purpose of the rules are to “Ensure (that) ... personal actions on social media do not impact the public perception of the CPD’s ability to provide impartial and professional service.”

Wilson said she had been in discussions with the fire department’s command staff before the protest about a precise social media personnel policy for firefighters. She said that, originally, she wanted an updated policy in place July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

The firings of a fire captain, a senior firefighter and a probationary firefighter for remarks about running over protesters were based on broader personnel rules that govern conduct unbecoming of a city employee and endangering fellow workers, said Columbia personnel director Pam Benjamin.

“The difficulty in making personnel decisions involving social media activities is the circumstances surrounding what was said and what happened as a result,” said Benjamin, who is not related to Mayor Steve Benjamin.

Capt. Jimmy Morris was on duty when he wrote, “Idiots shutting down I-126. Better not be there when I get off work or there is gonna be some run over dumb asses.”

Start running people over.”

Facebook post by Columbia senior firefighter Dave W. Proctor

Senior firefighter Dave W. Proctor and probationary firefighter Edward Augustyn were off duty when they made remarks. Proctor responded to Morris by writing, “Start running people over.” Augustyn said, “Ya think they would be going to bed to get ready for work tomorrow.”

Those posts caused fire chief Aubrey Jenkins to close the Eau Claire fire station, where Morris worked, for almost three days after the address of the fire station was listed on social media. He also temporarily locked down all 32 fire stations in the city and county as a precaution.

Columbia labor attorney Linda Edwards often advises local governments on personnel policies, including social media.

Edwards said such policies require a balancing act between free speech rights and the responsibilities that come with holding jobs funded by taxpayers.

People think you have a right to speak on anything you like. But you may not have a right to retain your job.”

Columbia labor attorney Linda Edwards

“People think you have a right to speak on anything you like,” Edwards said. “But you may not have a right to retain your job. Public employees do have a right to speak out, but that’s not an unfettered right.”

She agrees with Columbia’s personnel director that each decision must ultimately be made on the circumstances surrounding the statements or conduct of individual public employees.

This week, Richland County said it had terminated three ambulance workers and that a fourth had resigned in the wake of similar postings about the protesters.

The county’s chief spokeswoman did not respond directly on Wednesday when asked if the county has a social media-use policy.

“As stated in the news release Monday, the men violated the Emergency Services Division’s ‘zero tolerance’ for ‘actions which are grossly unprofessional or grossly violate the standards of Richland County, the department or a division,’ ” spokeswoman Beverly Harris wrote in an email.

Lexington County government has been working to devise a policy since at least last spring, spokesman Harrison Cahill said. A draft is to be reviewed by a labor attorney and the county’s personnel department, he said.

Gov. Nikki Haley banned the use of social media on the job or on state equipment for cabinet agencies – agencies whose heads report directly to her – through a code of conduct directive that took effect July 1, 2015.

Staff writer Tim Flach contributed.