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Philadelphia Cops Fired Over Social Media Posts Can Proceed With First Amendment Lawsuit, Appeals Court Rules

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A US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit panel has ruled that 12 former Philadelphia police officers, who were either suspended or terminated due to posts on social media, can move forward with their First Amendment lawsuit against the city.

We obtained a copy of the opinion for you here.

The Backdrop: Back in 2019, researchers unveiled a database cataloging controversial Facebook posts and memes made by active and former police officers across several states. Many were accused of being racist. Some were accused of being violent. This led to disciplinary actions against 200 officers in Philadelphia, with 15 facing termination. 12 of these officers subsequently filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights.

District Court’s Take: In the initial trial, District Judge Petrese Tucker dismissed the lawsuit, asserting that the officers’ posts not only eroded public trust in law enforcement but also infringed upon the city’s social media policy. Judge Tucker stated that the plaintiffs “played racist bingo, mocking as many ethnic or religious groups as possible.”

Appeals Court’s Viewpoint: The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, composed of a three-judge panel, concurred that the posts in question were “offensive, racist and violent,” and clarified that they did not “condone the officers’ use of social media to mock, disparage, and threaten the very communities they were sworn to protect.” The panel also noted, “Posts like the officers’ have the capacity to confirm the community’s worst fears about bias in policing.”

Why the Reversal? The panel contended that dismissing the lawsuit was hasty due to uncertainties surrounding which posts led to disciplinary actions, the origins of some posts, and the overall impact of these posts.

What’s Next? The case has been remanded to the district court for further proceedings. The Appeals Court acknowledged that the officers face significant challenges, stating they “undoubtedly face a steep uphill climb in ultimately proving their case.”

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