MADISON COUNTY, Ala. – Deputy Jeff Graves from the Madison County Sheriff’s Office chose to share his opinion on the LGBTQ community from his Facebook account after the death of 15-year-old Nigel Shelby.
His posts sparked conversations throughout the community and some questioned if he can respond as he did as a public employee.
WHNT News 19 spoke with Mark McDaniel, a Huntsville attorney, to find out how Graves’s First Amendment rights work in his line of business.
“The First Amendment, that gives you freedom of speech but there are exceptions to that. One of the exceptions is where it violates the legal rights of others. Or the other exception, if it’s because of some compelling government interest,” explained McDaniel.
So if you work as a public employee you have freedom of speech, but there are some things you simply cannot say.
In this case, Deputy Graves is working under a department policy that restricts what he can and cannot say publicly.
“You may have a right to freedom of speech but if you have a policy, if you work for a corporation and you go out and you say something that reflects badly on that corporation, you’re probably going to get fired or suspended,” said McDaniel.
So the question is, does this still apply to social media?
McDaniel explains that it does apply to social media, and a lot of people forget that.
“The whole thing about social media is once it’s out there, it’s out there. It’s like you bought a billboard,” explained McDaniel.
Even if you post to your personal social media account, and if you’re off from work, these rules still apply to those who work in a public position.
The problem with Graves’s posts are that they can affect public interest.
“A law enforcement officer makes a statement… that’s 24/7. They might say. ‘well I didn’t make it on the job’ Well no, you’re on duty 24/7. You can make an arrest at any time,” said McDaniel.
Madison County Sheriff’s Office has made a statement on Facebook regarding Graves posts.
“The Madison County Sheriff’s Office acknowledges complaints of social media post allegedly made by an employee of the Sheriff’s Office to a local media outlet’s FB post on Sunday. The Sheriff’s Office has assigned these allegations to be audited with the information that has been provided to us. The public can be assured that a thorough and complete audit will be conducted to arrive at an appropriate conclusion.”