County Runs Amok on Internet Prohibitions


     (CN) - Gloucester County, N.J. issued a diktat claiming the right to punish its workers for virtually anything they say at any time on any Internet space, two employees say in a constitutional complaint in Federal Court.
     Vincent Gattuso and Michael Blaszczyk sued Gloucester County, its Board of Freeholders and the seven board members, in Camden Federal Court.
     Gloucester County, pop. 290,000, is in the Delaware Valley, just across the river from Philadelphia. The county seat is Woodbury.
     The workers say the county's Internet policing policy is unconstitutionally vague and broad.
     "The policy regulates county employees' use of 'social networking' and 'social media,' including but not limited to Internet related activities, such as blogging, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, etc. and other media forms of communications, such as texting, instant messaging, Twitter, etc.' This is the broadest possible scope of social media outlets, effectively subjecting all county employees' off-work expressive speech activity to employer oversight and discipline," the complaint states.
     The county issued its ukase in March 2012.
     "The provisions of the policy that require employees, in utilizing any social media forum, to 'be respectful to the County of Gloucester, co-workers, volunteers, contract staff, vendors, customers, residents and others' are vague and overbroad," the complaint states. "The term 'respectful' lacks clarity and precision and thus is vague and overbroad.
     "In addition, the policy further states that '[s]ocial media shall not be used to harass, threaten, libel, malign, defame, disparage or discriminate against anyone associated with the County of Gloucester or the County of Gloucester's general reputation.' The policy fails to define the terms harass, threaten, libel, malign, defame, disparage and discriminate and thus this provision of the policy fails to provide notice to county employees of specific prohibited expressive activity. Because the policy is broadly worded to prohibit as much speech as possible, it chills the rights of county employees to speak as citizens on matters of public concern.
     "In addition, absent prior written consent, the policy prohibits any employee 'from posting to non work-related social media, video, audio or other content that relates to any of the County of Gloucester's premises, property, activities; or posting pictures, video, audio or other content related to co-workers, customers or residents.' This means that an employee cannot post on their personal Facebook wall a photo of themselves, holding a sign critical of a county policy, in front of a statue in a county park taken on private time, without first obtaining written consent from the county. In addition, the policy would prohibit the posting of a photograph of a county employee attending a rally on county property and displaying a sign critical of county policy. The prohibition on content that 'relates to' the county lacks clarity and is overbroad.
     "The policy further prohibits employees from linking 'to any of the [county's] external or internal Internet material in any non work-related social media.' For example, under the policy an employee is prohibited entirely from utilizing their private Twitter account to send a 'tweet' containing a link to a county press release announcing the County's 4-H fair. This provision will inhibit county employees from speaking, commenting or linking to matters of public concern."
     Violation of this ridiculous policy could subject workers to termination, the workers say. Gattuso is an electrician; Blasaczyk works for the highway department. Both have Facebook pages and both have identified themselves as public workers on their pages.
     They seek declaratory judgment that the county's policy is unconstitutional, and want it enjoined from enforcing it, plus court costs and attorney fees.
     They are represented by Annmarie Pinarski, with Weissman & Mintz, of Somerset.