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Utah librarians score free speech victory for right to post on social media

The city of Orem adopts First Amendment-protective social media policy and promises protections for librarians after FIRE intervenes
Smiling woman librarian with books pile on head work in library

Good news for bibliophiles and all lovers of the First Amendment! This week, the City of Orem, Utah, adopted a new social media policy that respects the constitutional rights of its librarians and other public employees.

This move is the latest positive step that Orem took in response to a letter FIRE sent on behalf of the Utah Library Association last year. Taken as a whole, these highly significant changes clarify that the First Amendment protects Orem employees and allows them to express their views on social media. 

“We are grateful to the City of Orem for working with FIRE and ULA to ensure that Orem librarians are free to participate in the ULA, that displays honoring Pride and heritage months are allowed once again, and that city employees, both in and out of the library, know that they have a constitutional right to speak out and express themselves even if they are criticizing the city,” ULA President Erin Warnick said in a statement to FIRE.

At the time of FIRE’s letter, the Orem library had stripped staff of a key professional benefit that the city had provided for years—time and resources to join and participate in ULA programs—because ULA and library staff had criticized the city’s decision to eliminate Pride and heritage month displays in the library. That deprivation compounded the city’s preexisting social media policy that threatened employees with discipline if they posted anything that could be understood to “discredit or disparage” the city, including First Amendment-protected criticism of the library’s policy regarding displays.

Shortly after FIRE sent its letter, Orem took several steps in the right direction:

  • Orem announced the restoration of its relationship with ULA. Since then, the city and library have followed through, meeting with ULA leadership and allowing employees to resume attending ULA events. In fact, in May, six library employees had their costs covered by the city to attend ULA’s annual conference, and the city allowed two part-time employees to attend, as well.
  • Orem publicly affirmed “its commitment to respecting the constitutional rights of both employees and others with whom the City interacts.” 
  • Orem adopted a new display policy which has allowed Pride and heritage displays to resume.

Last July, we called all of this a “good start,” but we also noted “the First Amendment requires more” and said we’d look forward to working with Orem officials to do what was necessary to bring the city into compliance with its constitutional obligations.

We are pleased to see these noticeable improvements and hope that they will ensure Orem employees feel free to speak out without fear of censorship.

Fortunately, Orem took FIRE up on that opportunity. Over the past several months, FIRE worked with the city to develop a new social media policy. The new policy, which Orem announced to city employees via email and added to the employee handbook, cures many significant constitutional defects. 

We’ve heard of librarians shushing loud-talkers. But in Orem, Utah, it’s city officials telling librarians to zip it — or else.

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  • Most importantly, the new policy eliminates the prohibition on speech that could “discredit or disparage the City.”
  • The policy clearly states in plain and understandable language that “Employees are generally free to express themselves as private citizens on social media sites.”
  • The new policy eliminates a prohibition on “ethnic slurs” and “profanity” that clearly encroached on constitutionally protected expression.
  • The new policy also axes a prohibition on making “disparaging comments about the workplace, City policies, supervisors, co-workers, citizens, customers or other persons associated with the City” that was vague, overbroad, and likely unconstitutional.
  • The city also cut a prohibition on employees using social media to air “disagreements among fellow employees” that was similarly vague and likely unconstitutional.
  • The new policy clarifies that the city will not penalize employees for social media speech unless it causes specific and significant negative impacts to city operations. Furthermore, employees will not face penalization for speaking out on matters of public concern unless the city’s interest in preventing that speech outweighs the employee’s interest in speaking.
  • The new policy correctly states that the burden of proving that the city’s interest outweighs the employee’s interest is on the city.

We are pleased to see these noticeable improvements and hope that they will ensure Orem employees feel free to speak out without fear of censorship.

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