Philly cops fired over offensive Facebook posts can pursue First Amendment claim, court rules

A dozen Philadelphia police officers who were fired or suspended for racist and violent social media posts can pursue a lawsuit against the city claiming their First Amendment rights were violated, a federal appeals court ruled.

The officers’ social media accounts were included in a database, published in 2019, that catalogued thousands of bigoted or violent posts by active-duty and former police officers in several states.

In Philadelphia, nearly 200 officers were disciplined, including 15 who were forced off the job. Twelve officers subsequently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, asserting the police department had retaliated against them for exercising their First Amendment rights.

A federal judge dismissed the suit last year, agreeing with the city’s argument that the officers’ posts had undermined public trust in the department and violated the city’s social media policy.

The plaintiffs “played racist bingo, mocking as many ethnic or religious groups as possible,” U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker wrote last year.

In a ruling Thursday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it agreed the content was “offensive, racist and violent,” adding it does not “condone the officers’ use of social media to mock, disparage, and threaten the very communities they were sworn to protect.”

“Posts like the officers’ have the capacity to confirm the community’s worst fears about bias in policing,” the three-judge panel wrote.

But the court said Tucker’s decision to throw out the case was premature, given what it said was a lack of clarity over the provenance of some of the posts, which posts were the subject of discipline by the police department, and the “unadorned speculation” about the posts’ impact.

The court sent the case back to the lower court, saying the officers could continue to pursue their claims while noting they “undoubtedly face a steep uphill climb in ultimately proving their case.”

The Facebook posts, all of which were public, were uncovered by a team of researchers who spent two years looking at the personal accounts of police officers from Arizona to Florida. They found officers bashing immigrants and Muslims, promoting racist stereotypes, identifying with right-wing militia groups and, especially, glorifying police brutality.

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