FAIRFIELD — Can a town fire its workers for insulting each other on their personal Facebook pages?
The town of Fairfield says yes, but a civil rights group disagrees and has asked the town to repeal a policy that seeks to limit the online speech of its roughly 70 employees.
Before the policy was implemented in July, two town workers were disciplined for their online behavior and no longer work at the town. One, a part-time librarian, said she was fired for exercising her right to free speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation sent Fairfield a four-page letter Tuesday, in which the civil rights group claims the town’s social media policy violates the First Amendment rights of its workers.
Town officials said they were taking the letter seriously and would review the five-page policy, which prohibits employees from a wide range of behaviors on their personal social media pages.
Tracey Stevens, Town Council chairwoman, said the policy is meant to protect employees, not prohibit them from anything.
“Before we adopted it in the first place, we did have it reviewed by our town attorney and there didn’t seem to be a problem,” Stevens said.
Now, with a different legal opinion being offered by the civil rights group, “we’re certainly taking it seriously.” Stevens said the council would review the policy and consider what, if any, changes need to be made.
In a public statement, Town Manager Josh Reny said Fairfield shouldn’t be unfairly singled out, and he questioned whether the civil rights group had evaluated the social media policies of other towns in the area.
Rachel Healey, a spokeswoman for the civil rights organization, said the group does not review all town policies actively, but instead typically acts when someone brings something to their attention.
“If someone raises a concern with us, we will definitely look into it,” she said.
Fairfield’s policy became a concern, she said, when the Morning Sentinel asked the civil rights group to comment on the policy for a news story.
The town has about 40 full-time employees and about 30 seasonal and part-time workers.
Susan Varney, of Fairfield, said she was fired from her part-time position at Lawrence Public Library because of comments she made online. She was dismissed in June, after the town began drafting the policy in April but before the Town Council adopted it.
Varney said she didn’t know that the comment she wrote would appear in her Facebook feed. She was posting a response to an online article she read that said low wages at Walmart create a public burden.
In her online posting, Varney called her co-workers “bobbleheads,” by which she said she meant they never disagreed with management. She also said she was treated disrespectfully in the workplace.
Reny said Varney was fired with cause, but he declined to comment in detail on the personnel issue, saying that would be violate her right to privacy.
In June, a week after she posted the comment, Varney said, she was called into the library director’s office and given a termination letter, solely for the online posting.
According to Varney, the letter referred to a comment she had made about her supervisor as “derogatory.”
She quoted the letter as saying, “Your public comments not only create hostile working conditions with fellow employees, but your comments harm the reputation of the Lawrence Public Library.”
Varney said she thinks her right to free speech was violated.
“Basically, it’s our right to speak out when we think things are unfair,” she said. “Of course they’re going to think it’s derogatory.”
Fairfield’s policy is a five-page, 1,700-word document based on a model policy from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The stated purpose of the policy is to provide guidance for employees on their personal and town-sanctioned use of social media on both personal and town-owned computers.
It includes six paragraphs of personal-use prohibitions, including bans of online behavior such as cursing, undermining the town’s image, irresponsible speech, or using sexually explicit language.
Employees are subject to “discipline up to and including termination” under the policy.
ACLU’s public policy counsel, Oamshri Amarasingham, wrote in the group’s letter that many sections of the policy are too vague and broad to pass a constitutional test.
Among other things, the ACLU letter specifically criticizes a clause in the social media policy that requires town employees to notify supervisors if a fellow employee violates the policy.
“The First Amendment does not permit this type of compelled speech,” Amarasingham wrote.
He also wrote that the town could not prohibit speech that would, in the words of the policy, “impair working relationships” and “impair discipline and harmony among co-workers.”
“Without specifying any standard of conduct at all, the town requires its employees to guess whether (an) Internet post might disrupt undisclosed town working relationships,” he wrote.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: