The Baltimore Fire Department is drawing criticism over new rules restricting what firefighters can post on Facebook and other social media. Department officials say the rules protect firefighters and the department, but critics say the provisions violate free speech rights, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The new policies make firefighters subject to reprimand for posting material about their jobs that does not adhere to "good judgment" and "courtesy and respect to the public and fellow employees." Firefighters are also prohibited from sharing information about fire scenes.
The rules come as city budget cuts have led to closing some fire companies. Firefighters took to social media sites to criticize the cuts and local officials, including the mayor and fire chief.
Fire department union leaders say those criticisms prompted the crackdown. But the fire chief told the Sun that some firefighters were "crossing the line," posting sensitive information about fire calls.
The rules prohibit on duty firefighters from making online comments about "matters of public concern." Restrictions also apply to online chatter even if firefighters are off duty.
Social media and free-speech advocates say the policy is too broad and could be used to stifle criticism of department officials. Officials, however, say the rules can stave off incidents like what happened in Harford County, Md., when some volunteer firefighters were demoted over the summer for online comments they made about a restaurant that did not give discounts to firefighters.
Fire department officials say they will not monitor employees' social media sites and state law bans employers from asking for employees' social media user names and passwords. Next year California will become the third state, following Maryland and Illinois, to enact such a measure. In other states, however, some local agencies have asked prospective employees to reveal social media login information as part of the hiring process.