The ACLU of Rhode Island has called upon the East Greenwich Town Council to revisit an “Employee Social Media Policy” it adopted last week. In a letter to the Council, the ACLU raises concerns about the policy’s “breadth and its impact on Town employees’ First Amendment rights.” Excerpts from the ACLU’s letter appear below:
“A major problem with this policy . . . is that it inappropriately conflates an employee’s speech as an employee with their speech as a private citizen. . . But the Town simply has no authority to regulate an employee’s private speech in the same manner as his or her speech in an official capacity. Government employees retain the general right to speak out as private citizens on matters of public concern.
“The policy’s restrictions are also extremely vague and open-ended. Among the types of speech that employees, even in their personal capacity, cannot post are comments that ‘ridicule,’ ‘disparage,’ or ‘otherwise bias [sic] against … any protected class of individuals.’ A person privately retweeting, or responding to, some of President Trump’s less tolerant comments over this past year could very well find themselves in violation of this policy.
“The policy further bans employees’ private speech ‘involving themselves or other Town personnel reflecting behavior that would reasonably be considered reckless.’ In light of last November’s rather scathing opinion issued by Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl, finding that the Town engaged in knowing and willful violations of the law, would it violate this policy for an employee to make reference to that opinion since it reflects ‘reckless’ behavior on the part of Town officials?
“In light of all that has gone on in the Town during the past year, we would respectfully submit that more speech, rather than less, should be encouraged among Town employees. A policy that so broadly serves only to chill employees from speaking out about improprieties, misconduct or other matters affecting the residents of East Greenwich is a disservice not only to the Town and its employees, but to its residents as well. The additional broad censorship of private speech unrelated to Town matters also sets a poor example.”
The letter concluded by urging the Council to reconsider the policy in light of these issues. For the past year, the Town has been embroiled in various controversies and litigation over employment matters and open meetings violations by the Town Council. It was only after its passage last week that some residents contacted the ACLU about the new policy, prompting the letter.