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INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC SAFETY ASSOCIATION
Together we are stronger

A social media case-study: Considerations for public safety leaders, elected officials

22 Mar 2021 3:15 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Gregory L. Walterhouse, Associate Teaching Professor, Bowling Green State University, IPSA Member

There are a number of terms used to describe the relationship between politicians and leadership including elected leaders, servants of the people, and servant leader. But are elected officials truly leaders, and if so, what leadership traits should they possess?

One author with a contrarian view, suggests that politicians are not elected leaders, and that political elections are a contest of competing interests. The author furthers suggests that leaders are recognized by character traits that draw others to them; and their ability to influence and encourage others to do certain things.

Another author also questions if elected officials truly serve as leaders, because to serve as leaders they must put the needs and goals of those they represent first. Leaders focus on the collective good and have concern about the people they represent and try to make their conditions better. The author submits that servant leaders must be ethical, do the right thing, have no hidden agendas, create value, and are focused on the common good and having a positive impact on the community at large.

A study conducted at Northcentral University surveyed voters, elected officials and business executives to determine what traits they preferred to restore their trust and confidence in elected officials. The traits viewed most important by respondents to the study were, integrity, honesty, trustworthy and ethical with integrity being the most important. What are the consequences when servant leader’s actions do not comport with these leadership traits?

A negative example involving an elected official is instructive.

Social media case study

An elected official in a U.S. city was at the center of a recent controversy that received widespread news coverage and resulted in harsh public criticism. The elected official allegedly made a post to their personal Facebook page depicting a thin blue line flag with the blue stripe partially peeled back exposing a red flag with a Nazi swastika which included a caption “Reading beneath the lines.”

This was ill-perceived by many and identified by some as hate speech. One city official opined that the post was “an ethical violation of city policy.” Another city official countered by supporting the elected official’s First Amendment right to free speech.

In response to the public outcry, the elected official removed the post claiming it was misinterpreted. The elected official further explained that they were ultimately acted carelessly with the social media post.

Analysis

It has been said, perception is nine tenths of reality. Actions of servant leaders need to focus on the common good, have a positive impact on the community at large, create value, and not be based on personal or hidden agendas.

It is unknown if the elected official’s alleged social media post involved a hidden agenda, but it undeniably had a negative effect on the city and community at large. The adverse consequences of the elected official’s alleged social media post are numerous and varied.

  • It forced the City to issue a statement, disavowing the post as an expression of a private citizen, and one that City does not support.
  • City administrators have been forced to devote time and effort to dealing with the negative publicity, disruption and fallout from the incident, including the City Commission confronting the matter at a commission meeting.
  • The city attorney is devoting time to issuing a legal opinion on possible forms of discipline.
  • The elected official’s post created division among residents on both sides of the issue. Another official commented that the post has become divisive and created much stress at city hall and the community.
  • Required the police department to issue a statement reassuring the community that “no matter their beliefs, or how they view politics” the department will continue to “service our community.”

Was the elected official’s alleged Facebook post protected speech?

The Supreme Court held in Pickering v. Board of Education, that public employees enjoy First Amendment protection when speaking as a citizen on matters of public concern. From available accounts, it appears the elected official was speaking on a matter of public concern, presumably on her own time and personal computer. Yet, the elected official’s speech caused considerable disruption for the City administration.

In several cases involving social media posts by public employees, various courts have held that potential disruption to a government entity can outweigh public employee freedom of speech rights (Duke v. Hamil; Gresham v. City of Atlanta (11th Cir. 2013); Grutzmacher v. Howard County (4th Cir. 2017)).  

Summary

Because the elected official’s alleged Facebook post caused disruption for the City, including divisiveness, stress, distraction, negative publicity and more, the post may not be protected speech.

Government has a legitimate interest in providing efficient public service, maintaining a favorable reputation with the public, and upholding public trust. That aside, the post was not made in the interest of the common good of the community, created no value, did not make conditions better or leave a positive impact, in fact did the opposite, was not the right thing to do, and is indicative that not all elected officials are true community leaders.

About the Author

Greg Walterhouse is an IPSA Board Member, an Associate Teaching Professor in the Fire Administration and Masters in Public Administration programs at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from Oakland University, a Master’s degree in Legal Studies from the University of Illinois and a Master’s degree in Management from Central Michigan University, and a Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership from Bowling Green State University. Before joining BGSU, Greg had over 35 years’ experience in various aspects of public safety with 18 years in upper management. The author may be contacted at waltegl@bgsu.edu.


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