ACLU supports fireman after Facebook rant

Author: Roger Lohse, Reporter, rlohse@Local10.com
Published On: May 15 2012 06:18:17 PM EDT   Updated On: May 16 2012 10:58:24 AM EDT
MIAMI -

The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue captain who was demoted for his Facebook rant involving the death of Trayvon Martin is getting a show of support from the American Civil Liberties Union. 

"I think to punish him for that is to say nobody who works for the county has free speech off the job, and I think that's wrong," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. 

Beckmann was demoted to firefighter, in part, because his personal Facebook post mentioned "co-workers" when he criticized the parents of urban youth. 

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the harsh punishment sends a message that the county will not tolerate outbursts that bring ill repute to the county or fire department. 

"So, he brought the county in on that respect, that being the opinion of the fire department and the county, and that we will not tolerate," Gimenez said. 

But, Simon told Local 10’s Roger Lohse that the county's code of conduct can't restrict an off-duty employee's right to free speech, regardless of what that employee says. Social media have blurred the lines between public and private behavior, and Simon said subjective policies like the county's code of conduct make it even more difficult to determine when a violation has occurred. 

Simon said that all speech, even online, is protected by the Constitution, and he believes because Beckmann was off duty, using his own computer, he was entitled to publish his thoughts. 

"I thought it was grossly offensive, but offensiveness is not the basis to determine whether people have freedom of speech," Simon said. 

Interestingly, according to the disciplinary report, Beckmann was demoted because his personal Facebook post, which he wrote on his own time, "may have compromised the public's trust in the organization." Yet, it was a fellow captain who circulated his private post to others in the community, and she was on duty at the time. 

Beckmann is appealing the fire chief's decision to demote him.