A federal appeals court Friday cleared the way for two Palm Beach County firefighters to pursue a lawsuit over being disciplined for Facebook posts.
A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned part of a district judge’s rulings in favor of Palm Beach County.
The case stemmed from an exchange between firefighters AJ O’Laughlin and Crystal Little on an invitation-only Facebook page associated with a campaign by O’Laughlin to become president of the local firefighters’ union.
The exchange dealt with an accusation that a union official attempted to misuse time that firefighters had donated to a union “time pool,” according to Friday’s ruling. O’Laughlin and Little were disciplined with written warnings under a fire department social-media policy.
They filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that the policy unconstitutionally restricted free-speech and free-association rights and was overbroad and vague.
A district judge dismissed or made summary-judgment rulings against them on the allegations, leading to the appeal to the Atlanta-based appeals court. The panel Friday overturned the rulings related to free speech and whether the policy was overbroad.
“It expressly prohibits ‘disseminating content’ that ‘could be reasonably interpreted as having an adverse effect upon Fire Rescue morale, discipline, operations, the safety of staff, or perception of the public,’” said the ruling, written by Judge Kevin Newsom and joined by Judges Stanley Marcus and Richard Story. Quoting a legal precedent, the ruling said “that ‘could be just about anything.’”