Jumping the Gun on Employee Internet Activity

security camera_thumbA new decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals provides public employers with some additional guidance regarding employee internet activity. In the case of Beyer v. Duncannon Borough, police officer Eric Beyer was terminated from his position after he posted anonymous online comments, critical of the Duncannon Borough Council. More specifically, Beyer criticized the Council for its opposition to the purchase of new AR-15 rifles for the police department.

Upon his termination, Beyer filed a lawsuit against the Borough, alleging violation of his  First Amendment rights. Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, a public employee’s speech is only protected by the First Amendment if the employee (1) speaks as a citizen (2) on a matter of public concern. Applying this standard, the District Court dismissed Beyer’s claim, holding that he was speaking in his official capacity as a police officer, not in his private capacity as a citizen. Beyer appealed the dismissal to the Third Circuit.

In reviewing Beyer’s appeal, the Third Circuit placed significant emphasis on the nature of Beyer’s speech–anonymous internet posts. The Court found that anonymous posting supported both prongs of the Garcetti analysis. First, the Court indicated that anonymous online postings are inconsistent with conduct performed in an official capacity. As a result, the Court found that it was more likely that Beyer was speaking as a private citizen. Second, the Court found that the broad dissemination of Beyer’s statements over the internet supported the argument that he was speaking on a matter of public concern. Based on the foregoing, the Court reversed the District Court’s dismissal.

So, what’s a public employer to do? The Third Circuit’s decision does not prohibit monitoring of employee internet activity pursuant to a reasonable policy. It does, however, limit a public employer’s ability to discipline its employees for anonymous online activity critical of the employer. Going forward, public employers should be particularly careful of any disciplinary action taken in response to such conduct, and when in doubt consult an attorney.