NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A policy governing the use of online social media and platforms by employees of the city of New Orleans unconstitutionally limits free speech, a lawsuit filed Thursday by two of the city’s library system employees claims.
The Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic filed the suit on behalf of two employees of the city’s library system. One, Andrew Okun, is identified as a writer and editor “engaged in substantial online communications.” The other is Erin Wilson, who, the suit says, has a strong online presence and “engages in online humor and social commentary about the transgender experience and challenges gender stereotypes on multiple social media platforms.”
Both reluctantly signed documents outlining the policies as a requirement of employment, according to the lawsuit, which focuses on a policy memo adopted last year that says employees can face discipline, including firing, for violations.
Language deemed vulgar or offensive is off limits, according to the policy. It also instructs employees not to “engage or respond to negative or disparaging posts about city departments, employees or policies.” It specifically mentions a host of online sites where social comment can be made, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Slack, gaming sites and news websites.
The lawsuit says the policy is overly broad and unconstitutionally governs what employees express while on their own time, effectively suppressing speech before it is even expressed. It seeks to have the policy declared unconstitutional.
“The categories of speech limited by the Policy are so expansive that it purports to regulate large swaths of speech that are constitutionally protected,” the lawsuit says. “The Policy would prohibit sharing a Facebook post detailing a former President’s sexist remarks to a journalist if that post were perceived as ‘vulgar’ or ‘offensive’ to some. The Policy also would prohibit the sharing of an article “advocating for the legalization of marijuana or arguing that citizens have the right to own machine guns.”
The lawsuit was filed Thursday morning. The city issued a statement saying city employees may be perceived as city representatives in some instances and that the policy “also reflects the City’s refusal to tolerate employee misconduct, particularly involving threats of violence and discriminatory behavior.”