social media, law, policies

It seems policy makers for the town of South Pittsburg, TN, may not have been paying attention. 

Overly-restrictive social media policies have been getting shredded recently, mostly by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

In addition, they’ve been sparking a number of First Amendment debates in courtrooms across America.

As a result, it’s a dangerous time for employers to be freewheeling and heavy-handed when creating social media policies.

But that didn’t stop South Pittsburg’s administrators from crafting an official resolution banning the town’s employees, volunteers and contractors from “publicly discus[ing] information about other employees and/or volunteers not approved for public communication” on social media.

The resolution also prohibits anyone associated with the town in any official capacity from creating Facebook and Twitter posts that might be defamatory or libelous.

Employees should have “no expectation of privacy whatsoever,” states the policy.

Town Commissioner Jeff Powers told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that officials, during town meetings, have had to “address something that’s been on Facebook and created negative publicity.”

He then went on to explain that employees could still post “all you want” — as long as it didn’t “shed a negative light on any person, entity, board or things of that nature.”

Infringement upon protected speech?

Powers, as well as Mayor Jane Dawkins, said these kinds of policies are not a new concept and have even become standard in the industry.

Some would probably take exception to statements like that.

The NLRB, for one, has gone on record numerous times stating that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) says employers can’t do anything to squash workers’ rights to participate in “protected concerted speech” that addresses their working conditions.

Specifically, the NLRB has said employees can talk about — and even criticize — their organizations’ management, pay practices and workplace rules in general.

Employers are, however, allowed to prohibit employees from doing things like discussing confidential info about customers and making statements that advocate insubordination.

Based on precedent set by the NLRB, it’s not difficult to see why some may think South Pittsburg’s policy infringes on workers’ rights.

But it appears as though no one’s filed an unfair labor charge against the town yet, so the issue hasn’t found its way into the NLRB’s hands.

Is it a free speech issue?

It’s also possible the policy infringes upon workers’ First Amendment right to free speech, according to Helen Norton, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law.

She told Bloomberg Businessweek that the town’s policy is “dangerously broad.”

Norton went on to tell Bloomberg that if a town employee wanted to criticize South Pittsburg’s government or the new social media policy, that kind of speech would be protected regardless of whether or not it was “approved.”

Isn’t it ironic?

In an ironic twist, Bloomberg pointed out that the town, by implementing the social media policy, appears to have sparked more public negativity online that it ever had before.

That observation came after scouring the town’s social media pages for any trace of a controversy that may have sparked it to create such a restrictive policy in the first place (no such controversy was found).

Some comments that have been posted to South Pittsburg’s Facebook page:

  • ” … I think that everyone that voted for and/or agrees with this policy is an ignorant jack-ass. While worried about online rumors from employees giving the city bad publicity you in your official capacity made the entire city look like complete fools. …”
  • “Anyone who intentionally tries to prevent negative comments is most likely to get a whole lot more of them as is the proven case of the horrible publicity for a very nice town.”
  • “Is this the kind of press coverage the city officials want?? We grow from our mistakes and being able to hear the good, not-so-good and the ugly should help us dig deeper to work a workable solution. …”
  • “Where do I get permission to post nice things about this lovely city? I promise I will only say really complimentary stuff and post photos of kittens and fluffy bunnies.”
  • “Hitler had nothing on SP. ISIS would be proud of you. Have you no idea the wrath of social media you have invited to your city. Your council must be idiots not to know that all of America is now watching you take away people’s rights. Good luck.”

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