Mayor Nutter Tells Firefighters to Shut Up While He Blows Smoke

The guys who risk their lives in hell-hot flames for us are restricted on Facebook and Twitter.

To paraphrase the First Amendment of the federal constitution, “The Mayor of Philadelphia shall make no law abridging firefighters’ freedom of speech … or their right … to petition his office via social media outlets and electronic transmissions for a redress of grievances, even when those firefighters are off duty.”

And to paraphrase Article I, Section 7 of the state constitution that goes even farther, “The printing press, which includes social media outlets and electronic transmissions, shall be free to every firefighter, even the off-duty ones, who may undertake to examine … any branch of government, including the mayor’s branch, and no … ordinance shall ever be made to restrain the right thereof. The free communication of … opinions is one of the invaluable rights of firefighters, and every one of them may freely speak, write and print, as well as post and tweet on any subject, including fire department subjects … ”

Yeah, I know that the Bill of Rights and the Pennsylvania Constitution were ratified in 1791 and 1776 respectively and that Facebook and Twitter weren’t around then, but the point remains valid: Firefighters are citizens who have free speech rights and mayors are not dictators who can silence critics.

Although I highly respect and support Mayor Michael Nutter, his Chief of Staff Everett Gillison, and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers—all great public servants—they are dead wrong this time. When the Commissioner issued General Memorandum Number 12-80 on August 1st regarding social media guidelines that ban firefighters from posting “any information … involving ‘off-duty’ activities that ‘may’ bring … the (fire) department’s reputation into question … (or involving) any material … that ‘may’ adversely affect the efficient or effective operation of the department … ” free speech wasn’t so free anymore.

I mean, it’s bad enough to violate the constitutional rights of regular citizens like you and me. But, my god, I’m talking about firefighters. Yes, firefighters! I’m talking about those courageous and selfless men and women who bravely defy natural human instinct by running into blazing conflagrations instead of away from them. I’m talking about the heroes who are always the first—and I do mean the first—responders to natural and man-made disasters.

• I’m talking about the heroes who, in 1991, raced to the 38-story towering inferno known as One Meridian Plaza and lost life, limb and health.

• I’m talking about the heroes who, in 1963, extinguished the wind-blown, white-heat, car-melting, three-blocks-destroying 12-alarm Fretz Building catastrophe at 10th and Diamond.

• I’m talking about the ready, willing and able, but frustrated and disappointed heroes who were ordered by city officials to idly stand by in 1985 in the 6100 block of Osage Avenue while 11 people were incinerated and 61 homes were destroyed.

• I’m talking about the heroes who volunteered since 1736 to risk everything by working for the fire department here in Philly, which is where Ben Franklin founded the first volunteer fire unit in Colonial America.

You think maybe this mayoral fiat is payback for the firefighter union’s endorsement of the Mayor’s challenger, Milton Street, in the 2011 primary as a result of their dissatisfaction with fire station brown-outs and contract disputes? Or you think maybe the Mayor wants to silence the union’s justifiable criticism of his controversial decision to appeal the latest arbitration decision? Or you think maybe it’s both? Of course not. It has absolutely nothing to do with petty personal politics or with “how dare city taxpayers and voters question an elected municipal official’s judgment” arrogance. I’m very sure it’s not, said I naively.

I must admit that I’m the angry black guy who usually sides with the black folks because the facts warrant it and justice demands it. And this is especially true when a predominantly white entity, e.g., the Philadelphia Fire Department, has a long history of racism. As noted by Lieutenant Kenneth Greene, the former president of Valiants Club, the black firefighters’ association, many white members of the predominantly white firefighters’ Local 22 create a “racially offensive and hostile work environment” that insults and alienates black members.

But this censorship issue has nothing to do with racism. Instead, it has everything to do with the slippery slope of dictatorial politics. And that—like racism—cannot be tolerated, whether it’s by a black or a white mayor in office. So it pains me to admit this, but my good brothers Nutter, Gillison, and Ayers are on the wrong side this time. Can you imagine the dangerous precedent that this “shut the hell up” fiat could set? Can you imagine what a corrupt and corrupting weapon it could be in the hands of a racist or sexist or otherwise bigoted mayor?

Just as students don’t “shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse door,” as declared by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision, public employees don’t shed theirs when they enter City Hall or the fire station and certainly not when they’re off duty after leaving the fire station.

While it is obvious that such employees may not engage in unprofessionally insubordinate or similarly disruptive behavior on or off duty, as long as their deeds or words do not fall within that aforementioned category, the Supremes in the 1968 Pickering v. Board of Education and the 1987 Rankin v. McPherson rulings proclaimed that public employees are constitutionally protected, especially when their deeds or words pertain to matters of “public importance” or “public concern.”

In a case quite like what Philadelphia firefighters are dealing with, a California federal district court sided with the Victorville Professional Firefighters Association in a 2006 lawsuit overturning an ordinance designed to restrict public employees’ rights to communicate with city council, even when off duty. The association pointed out that the ordinance was nothing more than a shrewd attempt to stop its members from bringing complaints about management directly to council’s attention. Sound familiar?

Although I’m a black man before anything else, I’m also a black man who values his and everybody else’s—including firefighters’—constitutional right to free speech.