A Victorian volunteers asks about ‘… EM staff who create a social media account and use the name of their organisation in the tag but state that the views expressed are their personal views’.   My correspondent has provided a screen shot of a page by a senior fire fighter that identifies his position and agency but says ‘Views expressed are my own’ (I won’t reproduce that shot as I don’t want to speak about that member, but about the issue in general).

My correspondent continues:

In the event that a member of the community is following this information I would have no doubt that they would assume that the information is from a trusted source. I suppose the legal question in this case is can a person that looks, smells and feels like an agency representative include a statement that their views are their own. I would have thought that they will be seen as a representative and as such the ‘views are my own’ statement should be deleted.

I have to infer what sort of legal issues we are talking about here and what the person is talking about on their social media page.  I will assume that the page in question is either open to the public or at least widely available to members of the agency.  It’s not a closed group where the only members are family and personal friends known to the author.

I would suggest that if a senior officer is going to put out, on a widely available social media page, any community warning and advice information they are not going to really be putting out their own views.  I can’t imagine that if the agency puts out a ‘watch and act’ warning for Kickatinalong, a senior member is going to say ‘I reckon that’s crazy, the fire’s never going to get there’.   Equally if the agency is saying ‘clear your gutters as good storm preparation’ the officer is not going to contradict that and say ‘I don’t think you need to, it really doesn’t make a difference’.  So in that context its hard to see how they are going to express their own views rather than the official line.  And one can imagine that if their views are contrary to the official line, they are not going to be in the job for long.  A ‘member of the community … following this information’ is going to be at least confused.

It’s also hard to imagine they are going to give their own views on various issues.  I don’t suppose that if there has been a public complaint about conduct within the agency and the Commissioner has said ‘we’ve investigated and are satisfied that everything was in order’ that a senior officer is going to say ‘Well that’s rubbish, the investigation was a white wash and the person the subject of the complaint should have been kicked out’.   And one can imagine that if their views are contrary to the official line, they are not going to be in the job for long…

Perhaps they’ll express their own views on politics – supporting one candidate in favour of another; or social issues – claiming that women are being unfairly appointed because they’re not really up to being fire fighters; news events – I saw the accident and it really was the driver of the truck at fault, or …. I’m not sure what else.  Although a person is allowed to hold their own views, by expressing them in public and linking themselves to their organisation they are clearly holding themselves out as part of that organisation and may well be in breach of the agencies code of conduct.  For example, the NSW SES Code of Conduct and Ethics says (at [6.2], emphasis added):

Where comment might be perceived as being an official view of the NSW SES, the Member must seek authorisation for such comment via the Manager Corporate Communications on behalf of the SES.

Given the person express link to the agency, their comment may well be perceived as the ‘official’ view even if they say ‘views expressed are my own’ as people might well (like me) not really believe the person is going to express their own views.

The NSW Police ‘Official Use of Social Media Policy’ says a

…“personal’ social media site is a site owned by a NSW Police Force employee and used for personal or private interaction, with content that does not represent the NSW Police Force, a business, charity or other organisation.

If a person is operating a public social media site and identifies themselves by name and agency it would, in my view, be hard to argue that is for ‘personal or private interaction’.

(I should I note that my correspondent is NOT from either NSW SES or NSW Police nor is the person who maintains the page he sent me, I’m just picking these as agency examples.)

It’s a bit like a person sitting with a couple of close friends and saying ‘the Commissioner is a dick’ compared to standing on a soap box in the Sydney Domain, in uniform, and saying ‘the Commissioner is a dick, but that’s just my opinion’.   One’s probably OK, the other is not.

Compare this situation to my own.  I operate a private Facebook page and the only requests I accept are from people I’ve actually met.  I also have this WordPress site, Facebook page (Australian Emergency Law) and LinkedIN.  Whilst I like to think that all my readers are my friends, there are many followers there who I don’t know.  I approach the ‘public’ pages differently to the private one.   On these public fora there is a brief bio that does point out I work for the Australian National University.   Even so I wouldn’t expect anyone to think that I am expressing the views of the the ANU because 1) I’m not senior management (it might be different if I was the VC); 2) no-one would expect the ANU to have a view on emergency management law and 3) there is an understanding that one of the things academics are paid to do is express their own views, even if they are contrary to the views of their institution and the government of the day.  That is the fundamental role of academics enshrined by the concept of ‘academic freedom’.  I’m not sure that would be true for an agency officer who identified their social media site as the site of “…..Officer, …. agency’.

Even if a site is for personal or private interaction it does not mean posts there cannot come back to bite you.  Whilst often reluctant to point to US precedents, I do refer readers to the US Fire Law Blog maintained by fire fighter and lawyer Curt Varone.  His blog is full of posts where US fire and EMT professionals have lost their jobs over social media posts and these include cases where they really are just posting on their own blog sites – see http://www.firelawblog.com/category/social-media/

Conclusion

I can’t point to any specific law here; just the principles and how as a lawyer one would approach the issue.  If a member has identified themselves by agency and rank and particularly if they are a senior rank, they can’t really say ‘their views are their own’ as no-one could seriously believe that the views they are expressing are their own.  And if the views being expressed run counter to the official line, or the agencies code of conduct, or the agencies expectation of its staff, they can expect serious consequences for their employment (see for example Linfox Australia Pty Ltd v Stutsel [2012] FWAFB 7097).

Even if what they are putting up is news stories about how they attended the local unit and had a lovely social gathering to hand out awards, they are still reporting on their official duties.

I can’t see how a person who identifies themselves by rank and agency can expect a statement that ‘the views expressed here are my own’ to have any meaning.