By Meike Wijers
A Facebook page set up to support police officers battling mental illness has been shut down, which raises the question of whether Facebook infringes on free speech.
The distressing events with which police officers have to deal can take a toll on their mental health. Being a police officer cost Berrick Boland his job, his career and his mental and physical health.
Mr Boland, a former Maroubra detective, says he was “forced” to resign after suffering from PTSD and a neck injury. “I was off for twelve months with a doctor’s certificate, but then they directed me back to work. When I refused, they put me on leave without pay and eventually charged me for disobeying lawful direction. In the end, this forced me to resign, rather than spending the money to face the charge.”
Mr Boland says he did not feel supported within the police force while battling mental health issues. “It’s a sign of weakness in the department. This culture starts in the academy. When you let your guard down, you’re classed as a whimp. You’re seen as sort of subhuman and they won’t tolerate that. They want to avoid a public perception that there is a problem or weakness in the police force,” he says.
The Forgotten 300 is an advocacy group initially set up for injured police who have claims with the insurer MetLife, which lost its government contract in 2012 when the police death and disability scheme was overhauled. The officers left behind waited years to have their claims determined.
Mr Boland took over the administration of the Facebook page last year and broadened its purpose to provide a platform for all injured police officers who are struggling with mental health problems. “A lot of these mentally injured people would be alright if they just got the proper help and care. But they are continually stoned to death by the system, by doctors and specialists. That causes marital problems, alcohol abuse, and ultimately some of them commit suicide,” Mr Boland says.
A few weeks ago, the page was inexplicably removed by Facebook. Mr Boland tried to get an explanation from the social media giant, but so far without success. He can only guess why the page was suddenly taken down. “I wrote about a couple of bad experiences I had with a particular commission officer. I suspect he read those and, since he’s very high up now, he wanted to protect his career. But they were true accounts,” he says.
Losing the Facebook group was a big blow to the community they build up, says Mr Boland. Though he has started a new page, The Forgotten 000, hundreds of testimonials disappeared from the internet when Facebook deleted the page. The stories, most often told anonymously, were posted on the page to start discussion, people related to them and shared their own experiences.
But sometimes anger prevailed in the comments. A screenshot of the Facebook group that Mr Boland took not long before it was taken down, shows the following post on March 14, 2016:
“Superintendent Charles*, either resign or face the wrath of The Forgotten 300’s admin in the coming weeks. I am going to give you the option you gave me, when I was off injured and without any medical care, cut from the payroll and medical bills sent to my home address, we’ll see how you like it.”
Lyn Kemmis, senior lawyer at Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), explains that Facebook holds the right to delete a comment or a page, even when it may not be a direct case of defamation. “Facebook can take a page down for a range of reasons, and those reasons don’t have to be legal ones. But if any individuals are singled out for criticism on social media, there’s a whole range of consequences that can flow from this – including defamation,” she says.
Facebook declined to comment specifically on this why this page was removed. They refer to their terms and conditions, a statement says: “Facebook will investigate content that is reported to violate our Community Standards. Where we find content that is outside of our standards, we will remove it.”
Facebook’s terms and conditions are mainly focused on (cyber) safety and security. One bullet point is dedicated to ‘encouraging respectful behaviour’. The explanation leaves room for interpretation: ‘People use Facebook to share their experiences and to raise awareness about issues that are important to them. This means that you may encounter opinions that are different from yours, which we believe can lead to important conversations about difficult topics. To help balance the needs, safety, and interests of a diverse community, however, we may remove certain kinds of sensitive content or limit the audience that sees it.’
The NSW Police Force also declines to go into detail about why they contacted Facebook. A spokesperson said: “The NSW Police Force did contact Facebook regarding concerns over numerous posts considered highly offensive and detrimental to the wellbeing of particular serving officers. Facebook reviewed those posts and has taken action in line with their terms and conditions.”
The lack of explanation has left Mr Boland angry and confused. “They have erased all the history of our posts, comments and tributes to suicide victims. Its really shocking. They just didn’t like the truth coming out, because it made them look really bad,” he says.
Ms Kemmis says she understands the frustration when a page gets taken down. But she points out that it is a common misconception that Facebook is a public space and that taking down a page is an assault on the freedom of speech. “Facebook has an interest in reducing its level of risk – whilst we might think of them as like a public noticeboard, or sounding board; the reality is they are a company with a bottom line just like anyone else,” she says.
That may be a hard reality for The Forgotten 300 group, Ms Kemmis says. “The challenge for interest groups like this one is how they can manage their content in a way which tells the stories they want to tell – and whether Facebook is going to be a place they can do that successfully.”
*Name has been changed.