The policy is scheduled for more discussion at the council’s next meeting on Tuesday.
The policy uses an example of a police officer’s Facebook page harking back to a case involving Anniston officer Roy Bennett’s Facebook criticism of Councilman Ben Little. That case led to a July 2010 disciplinary hearing that decided Bennett did not violate any city or department policies. But Little brought the incident up for review at the council’s ongoing inquiry hearings on alleged illegal and illicit activities at City Hall.
The proposed policy is based on a policy the Anniston Police Department adopted in June 2010, in the wake of the uproar caused by Bennett’s postings.
The policy encourages employees to “avoid listing the City of Anniston as their employer or posting information that would lead others to understand that they are employees of the city, thus allowing them more freedom to address controversial issues.” It goes on to say that employees who do list their employer are “obligated to present the City of Anniston, its officials, employees, and citizens in a positive light.” It also says that employees are prohibited from posting anything on the site that would be “inappropriate or embarrassing to the city or its citizens.”
The policy doesn’t address what disciplinary action will be taken or if any will be taken against employees who don’t list their employer but make comments the city might consider inappropriate or embarrassing.
City Manager Don Hoyt said during the meeting that employees who don’t list their employer or anything that might lead someone to believe they are a city employee are free to say what they wish.
Councilman John Spain said during the discussion that a policy was sorely needed, but he was concerned that the policy should be reviewed by an attorney.
“You can’t talk negatively about your place of employment,” Spain said. “I just want to make sure that we don’t have any legal language snafus in here.”
Councilman David Dawson also expressed some reservations about the policy.
“How do you restrict what someone says from their home?” he asked during the meeting.
Policies nationwide regarding postings on social networking sites have been criticized as various groups have taken on the issue to defend employees’ freedom of speech.
Attorney Jason Odom, who defended Bennett in his disciplinary hearing, said the proposed policy seems overly broad.
“The City of Anniston’s proposed policy on ‘social networking,’ as currently written, greatly concerns me because of its potential to be used by the City to chill the constitutionally protected free speech rights,” he said in a written response. “The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that ‘a citizen who works for the government is nonetheless a citizen’ and the Constitution and the Court is there to ‘ensure that citizens are not deprived of fundamental rights by virtue of working for the government.’”
In fact, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against American Medical Response of Connecticut Inc. after it terminated an employee based on some Facebook postings about her supervisor. In a press release issued by NLRB in November, it said the company’s policy contained things that infringed on the employees’ freedom of speech – for instance, the prohibition against making disparaging remarks when discussing the company or their supervisors.
“You can exceed the bounds of protection by being over the top,” said Doug Marshall, resident officer for the NLRB. “You know, if you threaten murder and mayhem while you’re talking about wages, hours or working conditions, then you lose the protection.”
However, just discussing working conditions is constitutionally protected, Marshall said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers about sharing work-related things on social networking sites.
National Fraternal Order of Police Executive Director Jim Pasco cautions that police officers are particularly at risk of having what they say held against them in court.
“Enterprising criminal defense attorneys might well go to their Facebook and might well try to use information there to impeach the officer’s credibility as a witness,” Pasco said.
However, he maintains that the officers have the same rights as everyone else.
“Police officers are citizens as well as police officers, and they don’t check their civil rights at the station house door,” Pasco said. “They have a right to freely express themselves within the same reasonable limits and constraints that everyone else does.”
Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.