The town of South Pittsburg, Tenn., has just passed the best social media policy ever. At least, that’s what certain people have to say—because South Pittsburg has barred them from criticizing the town on social media.
The town of 3,000 people, just west of Chattanooga, passed a resolution on Dec. 9 that applies to anyone professionally connected to South Pittsburg—including employees, volunteers, and contractors—from “publicly discuss[ing] information about other employees and/or volunteers not approved for public communication” on social media, according to the official resolution. It also warns against writing anything on a personal Facebook (FB) page or on Twitter (TWTR) that might be considered defamatory or libelous. People “should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever,” the policy states.
“The first thing everyone wants to say is, ‘I can’t post anything on Facebook,’” the town’s commissioner, Jeff Powers, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “Well, you can. Just not [anything] that sheds a negative light on any person, entity, board, or things of that nature.”
“It is not a new concept,” South Pittsburg Mayor Jane Dawkins wrote in a Facebook message to Bloomberg Businessweek. Dawkins said the policy was mostly designed to stop people from posting employees’ salary information or police officers’ schedules on Facebook. “This lets people know that the officer’s spouse and children are home alone or that no one is at home,” she explained. (The South Pittsburg Police Department doesn’t appear to have much of a Facebook page, and it’s unclear if officers’ schedules have ever been posted online.) She also said that while she voted for the policy, “I did not commission this. Commissioner Jeff Powers did.” Powers did not respond to an interview request.
Not to sound negative, but there might be a problem with South Pittsburg’s new policy. The First Amendment protects free speech, especially free speech that criticizes the government. “This policy is dangerously broad,” said Helen Norton, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law who studies free speech as it applies to government workers. “It’d be one thing if it were just about job-required speech,” she said, noting that, for example, press secretaries can be fired if they say something in their official role that an administration doesn’t like. “But once you get into speech outside of the job and on private social media accounts, it’s not that simple.” Norton says that South Pittsburg’s city council could easily stop relevant parties from calling them names or launching personal insults. But if someone wanted to raise questions about the legality or necessity of their new policy, or criticize the town’s government in any meaningful way, that kind of criticism would be protected whether it had been “approved for public consumption” or not.
South Pittsburg doesn’t appear to have adopted its new policy in response to something negative that was written or said about the town online. Sure, a police officer was fired after he arrested the city administrator for reckless driving—an administrator on the commission that voted for the policy—but that was last year. And yes, the town was briefly derided when it considered outlawing saggy pants, but that was back in August. Residents say they’re unaware of any recent scandal that might have spurred the town’s council to action.