Smithfield Town Manager Michael Scott has admitted he asked a police officer formerly under his command to remove a private Facebook posting.
The police officer had commented on a July 22nd WTSB News story where we reported a 22 percent increase in crime during the first 5 months of this year compared to the same period in 2015. Scott was the chief of police in Smithfield for the majority of the time, before being hired as the town manager on May 3rd of this year.
A police officer, on his personal Facebook account, shared the story and commented why he thought crime in Smithfield has increased. According to one person who read the posting, the issue of a high turnover rate in the department under former Chief Scott was mentioned.
When WTSB News asked Scott if he had asked the police officer’s Facebook posting be removed, Scott replied in an email, “I do not recall having a conversation with an individual regarding his or her comments on social media.”
WTSB News then asked the town manager if he had anyone speak to the officer on his behalf, he then admitted to asking it be removed.
“I did contact Interim Chief (Keith) Powell and asked him to review the Facebook posting made by an employee of the police department… not all speech made by a government employee is protected by the First Amendment and could result in discipline up to, and including, termination.”
Scott cited a 2006 Supreme Court ruling where certain government employees who make statements based on their position as a public employee, rather than as a private citizen, are not protected by the First Amendment.
“I cannot speak further on this issue as it would be infringing upon personnel rights of an employee,” Scott said. WTSB News reached out to the veteran police officer who declined to comment.
While the police officer was forced to remove his comments or possibly face disciplinary action, the town manager says he has not asked certain members of the Smithfield town council to remove posts on their personal Facebook pages that some see as offensive. One of the council members posts was deemed potentially slanderous towards a Smithfield business owner, another slanderous towards a former town employee.
Scott said the Town is reviewing their current social media policy.
“In today’s world we have to be cautious when trying to balance the free speech rights of our employees and the need for governments to be able to achieve and maintain the public trust. Perhaps what most government employees and city administrators need is additional training, as opposed to more written policies…”
At least one member of the Smithfield town council who wished not to be identified expressed their disappointment at the town manager for his handling of the incident saying they saw nothing wrong with the officer’s comments.