Federal Court Rules Philly Officers Fired Over Social Media Posts can Sue Department Under First Amendment

The suit stemmed from a scandal that erupted in 2019, when a website dubbed the Plain View Project published a database of offensive social media posts made by police officers in several cities, including Philadelphia.

A federal appeals court has ruled that a civil rights lawsuit filed by 12 Philadelphia police officers who were disciplined for making racist or violent Facebook posts should be allowed to move forward, reversing a decision by a federal judge last year to dismiss the case.

In an opinion filed Thursday, the three-judge panel said that although it generally agreed the officers who sued had used social media “to openly denigrate various minority groups and glorify the use of violence,” it believed that their suit — which accused the city of violating their First Amendment rights — had been tossed prematurely. The panel said the case should be allowed to proceed in order to develop a record on matters including when certain posts were made and by whom, and which specific posts resulted in disciplinary action by the Police Department, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

The suit stemmed from a scandal that erupted in 2019, when a website dubbed the Plain View Project published a database of offensive social media posts made by police officers in several cities, including Philadelphia. Hundreds of officers were implicated, and the department responded by firing 15 officers and disciplining dozens more — the largest act of mass police discipline in recent city history.

“While the Officers undoubtedly face a steep uphill battle in ultimately proving their case,” the court wrote, “the allegations in their Amended Complaint entitle them to develop it in discovery.”

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