Taking Liberties: Facebook? Face Fire Department Termination

“They wouldn’t listen,” said Richard Doherty as he walked on the vacant lot next to the Bourne Fire Department, his old place of employment.

“The more vocal I got, the less responsive they were.”

Last summer when the then-fireman wanted to vent his frustrations with the fire department brass, he did what many Americans do these days, he logged onto Facebook.

“I picked up Facebook as a tool,” he said. “They just didn't want to hear any of our complaints or concerns.”

But his bosses did end up hearing of his “concerns” on Facebook, and after an investigation, fired the 17-year veteran, based solely on the Internet posts.

Doherty is now challenging the termination in federal court. It’s a case that could well decide the limits of the First Amendment on the Internet.

“When you're a public employee, you don't leave your free speech rights at home,” said his attorney Harold Lichten. “This was a private Facebook [post.]”

Last summer Doherty wrote a series of gripes on his Facebook page, criticizing his bosses with what he admits was some salty language.

He called one administrator an “axx hole,” and another a “dxxx head.” He also complained that a police officer in Bourne had given information to a reporter without giving it to the fire department first.

“Great job jackass,” he wrote.

No one from Bourne would comment, citing the pending litigation. But in an official memorandum, town administrator Tom Guerino explained the firing.

“By publicly disparaging and ridiculing the [officials,] Firefighter Doherty imperiled the link that must bind Fire and Police personnel. This conduct undermines the ability to serve the public and undercuts the Town's ability to provide these services."

In one post, Guerino pointed out, Doherty referred to a friend as a “pickle puffer,” which Guerino alleged is a homosexual slur.

“I find that Firefighter Doherty,” he explained, “has disqualified himself from the ability to serve because he elected to post on the Internet a message that causes the public to question whether he can serve all of its citizens.”

Lichten says the Internet postings were “private,” and were meant only for his Facebook “friends.”

“He was trying to establish a rapport with his fellow workers,” said Lichten, “and talk about things that were a matter of public concern to the town.”

“The things that he was bitching about on his Facebook site,” he continued, “were things that were affecting all the firefighters in the town.”

Doherty said he turned to the Internet only after official channels failed.

“I wanted to be heard,” he said. “They did not want to hear me.”

Lichten says he will be taking depositions from town administrators this summer and a trial could happen sometime next year.