The Rhode Island ACLU is weighing in on the town’s new social media policy, citing concerns with “its breadth and its impact on town employees’ First Amendment rights.”

The Town Council voted 3-1 in favor of the new policy at its meeting Jan. 22,  with President Sue Cienki, Vice President Sean Todd, and Councilman Andy Deutsch voting in favor and Councilman Mark Schwager voting against (Councilman Nino Granatiero was absent). You can find the policy here: Town of East Greenwich Social Media Policy.

In a letter to Cienki dated Jan. 29, ACLU executive director Steven Brown wrote:

“It is worth emphasizing that attempts to regulate employee social media use, by definition, involve regulating an exercise of free speech. The Town, of course, has the right to restrict certain employee speech – on social media and otherwise – but it must be done carefully to meet First Amendment standards. A major problem with this policy, however, is that it inappropriately conflates an employee’s speech as an employee with their speech as a private citizen.”

The letter continued, “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.”

Brown’s letter to Cienki also questioned the policy’s caution against employees posting “speech involving themselves or other Town personnel reflecting behavior that would reasonably be considered reckless or malicious.”

“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?” Brown wrote. 

Brown was referring to McGuirl’s ruling that the town violated the Open Meetings Act five times in June and August and also that Town Manager Gayle Corrigan fired a firefighter unlawfully.

He added, “It is difficult to understand the point of demanding that employees’ private social media posts include a disclaimer that they are speaking personally, when the rest of the policy essentially limits their town-related comments to only those that are acceptable in speaking as a town employee. 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.”

Find the letter from Steven Brown to President Cienki here: EG Social Media Policy letter/RI-ACLU.

Town Solicitor David D’Agostino, who wrote the policy along with town employees, said he was still reviewing the letter and was not yet ready to make “a more expanded comment.”

But, he said, “we take very seriously employees’ freedom of speech. In my review of the policy, I don’t think there was anything in there that was violating the First Amendment.”

Requests for comment from President Cienki were not immediately answered.

 

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