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Fairfield Social Media Policy Draws Fire from ACLU of Maine
09/11/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

A policy covering social media use in the town of Fairfield violates employees free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. That's one of the assertions in a letter sent to town officials this week by the ACLU of Maine. The civil libertites organization is calling on the town to repeal the policy, which it adopted over the summer. Jay Field reports.

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The roots of this conflict stretch back to the spring, when town officials realized that Fairfield didn't have a policy on social media use and needed one. Josh Reny, Fairfield's town manager, says town councilors began working on a draft.

"There were no incidents that precipitated this - although, coincidentally, as this was being discussed there were a couple of incidents that did occur," Reny says.

A part-time librarian got into trouble for criticizing co-workers on social media and lost her job. Meantime, Reny says the town council came up with a draft based on a tough model policy used by police departments. "Any person or employee has the absolute right to speak about issues of public concern at any time," Reny says.

What the policy forbids them from doing is posting obscene or sexually explicit language or images - or saying anything else, online, that could cast Fairfield in a negative light. Language in the policy prohibits workers from disclosing their employment with the town or posting information about another Fairfield employee without their permission.

Another section forbids speech that would "impair working relationships for the Town of Fairfield for which loyalty and confidentiality are important."

"This policy is so broad that it really regulates and bans speech that everybody has a right to engage in," says Zach Heiden, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maine, which believes Fairfield's social media policy violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"Somebody doesn't give up their constitutional rights just because they go to work for a town or a city," Heiden says. "We all have the right to speak out on matters of public concern."

When the Fairfield policy first came out, the ACLU of Maine was quick to raise its concerns. Now, the organization has sent a letter to Josh Reny, demanding that the social media rule be repealed.

"Towns, cities and all kinds of employers can work with their employees to help develop practices that make everybody work better and more efficiently," Heiden says, "but banning speech is never the answer."

Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny says he can't say the policy might violate the First Amendment. "I don't know, and I couldn't answer that," he says. "I think that this complaint - I'm going forward it on to the town council and they'll take a look at it. They may decide that they want to put it to a different attorney or our town attorney for additional review."

But even if that happens, Reny says he doesn't expect the entire social media policy to be repealed, "especially with the Maine Municipal Association recommending that towns adopt these types of policies."

The association says it's not aware of any other towns in the state with social media policies that could draw extra scrutiny from civil liberties groups. But it says more than 20 towns have reached out for guidance as they try to come up with their own rules.



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