Social media posts get Nashville Fire personnel in hot water

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Nashville Mayor Megan Barry signed an executive order mandating diversity training for all Metro employees just days before accusations surfaced of anti-LGBT social media posts from personal accounts of Nashville Fire Department staff.

And an emergency medical services district chief has removed all public visibility to his Facebook account in light of the accusations.

The online blog East Nashville News has spent the past week studying the proclivities of Nashville Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services staff on social media. Examples run the gamut from Facebook check-ins at strip clubs around town to an egregious number of Instagram photos posted in-the-moment while fires blaze.

One profile of note to LGBT city residents is that of EMS District Chief Tim Lankford, who over the span of many months posted on his personal Facebook account inflammatory references to gay and trans people. Though most all the references were so-called ‘shared’ items or quotes from others, they left the dubious assumption that they were opinions and feelings shared by the district chief. Troubling, because Chief Lankford is employed in a leadership position with the Nashville Fire Department—a division of Metro Nashville Government—and yet he is not an elected official who is expected to adhere to commonly accepted standards of political correctness if his beliefs run contrary.

Very likely due to the scrutiny of East Nashville News, Mr. Lankford removed reference to his employer from his Facebook profile earlier this week, but by then the cat was out of the bag. ENN had documented screenshots of posts from Lankford, one of which (though it was cited as a quote in the original post) regarded the recent national debate over bathroom access and threatened violence to trans people.

Just days later, another ‘share’ was posted, this one a recommendation from the American College of Pediatricians that “urges educators and legislators to reject all policies that condition children to accept as normal a life of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex.” The ACP is, perhaps needless to say, a right wing organization that values “the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death and the importance of the fundamental mother-father family (female-male) unit in the rearing of children.”

East Nashville News had gathered from the Nashville Fire Department (NFD) a copy of its Social Media Policy which states:

a) In general, Nashville Fire Department employees who participate in social media are free to publish their own personal information. Employees who identify themselves or who are identified (through photos or other means) as Nashville Fire Department employees while using social media must state in clear terms that their expressed views are theirs alone and do not reflect the views of the Nashville Fire Department. Except as authorized, all employees are prohibited from representing the Nashville Fire Department through their personal use of social media

d) Employees are expected to refrain from social media and online activities that reflect poorly on the Nashville Fire Department. Inappropriate social media and online activities that reflect poorly upon the Nashville Fire Department, its employees, or services, may result in corrective and/or disciplinary action.

Basically, Mr. Lankford and every other city staff member is in his or her right to post whatever he or she wants, provided they remove any acknowledgment of their employer from their profile. Mr. Lankford came into compliance with the city policy during the time that we were researching this story.

His First Amendment right protected his free speech, regardless to how inflammatory the statements might be received by a member of the community in which he serves.

O&AN reached out to Marisa Richmond, a lobbyist with the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and who is also newly appointed to the Metro Human Relations Commission. Richmond told us:

If a public employee cannot treat everyone who needs help fairly and equally, they should not be in that position.  Firefighters should not be making violent physical threats. He endangers the public and his colleagues with those attitudes.  He has a right to be a bigot, but he does not have a right to a job which endangers the public with those attitudes.

Sean Braisted, the press secretary in the mayor’s office, directed us to the executive order, and forwarded an email originally sent by Nashville Fire Department Chief Ricky White to all NFD staff. It read, in part: “We will not let the conduct of a select few reflect negatively on the overall department.  We strive to be a positive force in the community we serve, on and off duty, and we cannot uphold this image without you doing your part.”

The email concluded: “Think before you post!  Is what you’re posting on any form of social media worth the possibility of facing disciplinary action?”

Braisted added, “While our Metro employees do enjoy the right to freedom of speech, every citizen has the right to be treated with dignity and respect by public servants. If anyone feels they are discriminated against by a first responder or public servant, we would encourage them to report those instances to the Department in question, the Metro Human Relations Commission, or the Mayor’s Office in order to be fully reviewed and investigated.”

The Nashville Fire Department offered the following statement to O&AN:

The social media postings in question are the personal opinions of one employee and are not representative of the Nashville Fire Department and its 1,200+ employees. NFD is a modern, progressive and diverse fire department and it does not discriminate based on race, religion, age, sex, gender or sexual orientation. Our goal is to provide high quality emergency response while treating all people equally with skill and competence, whether they are our own employees or members of the community who need our services.

We are proud to have widespread support in the LGBT community and are unaware of any complaints of discrimination regarding our emergency responses. If NFD were to receive a complaint of discrimination, we would investigate it thoroughly and take appropriate action to correct it.

Moving forward, Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project offered these thoughts.

It is really sad that anyone in leadership in a Metro department holds these views.  He may be in compliance with Metro's policies and he obviously has First Amendment rights.  However, he has also revealed his bias.  So it would be important for any current or former LGBT employees under his supervision to consider whether they have been terminated, disciplined, or denied a promotion based on their sexual orientation or gender identity since September 25, 2009 when the Metro non-discrimination ordinance was signed into law.  If employees have faced acts of discrimination, they should explore their options.