New Orleans’ government has agreed to change its social media policy for employees, after settling a free speech lawsuit filed by two public library workers against City Hall, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her top deputy, chief administrative officer Gilbert Montaño.
Andrew Okun and Erin Wilson alleged in their 2021 suit that Policy 83(R), issued by Montaño a year earlier, was an unconstitutional effort to control what employees said in their free time, on public social media channels such as Tik Tok and even on private messaging services such as Slack.
Last week, City Hall revised the policy, dropping references to what employees may say in private messaging apps on their own time. The revision also removes vague directives, such as “avoid the offensive” or “do not engage or respond to negative or disparaging posts about city departments, employees or policies.”
Okun, who still works for the administration, said he feels vindicated.
“Generally speaking, when you have a city administration going out of its way to silence its own workers, that’s a bad sign,” he said. “And I think our case pointed to that. That’s why we fought, and that’s why we won.”
Wilson, who prefers to be referenced by plural pronouns, was particularly concerned about the previous policy because they are transgender, post regularly on Tik Tok and once appeared with their face obscured in a WWL-TV report, to speak out against Cantrell’s initial plan to keep public libraries open to visitors in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Wilson has left the library system to teach in a local high school, but was thrilled by the policy change, even though it no longer applies to them.
“For a long time, I felt like it was impossible to effect meaningful change,” Wilson said. “This experience showed me it is possible. And it feels empowering. It doesn’t matter that I’m a teacher now.”
Cantrell’s administration said Thursday it changed the policy to “provide guidance that addresses concerns of inappropriate disclosure of nonpublic information, ensures employees are not subject to workplace harassment and protects the privacy rights of city employees and citizens, all while respecting our employees’ rights to free expression.”
Katie Schwartzmann, a Tulane Law School professor and former legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, represented Okun and Wilson in their lawsuit. She said she had never seen a policy “that goes this far in regulating private activity of all city workers.”
Both balked at new policy but were required to sign it to keep their jobs