Superintendent Sito Narcisse is asking the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to adopt a sweeping new policy tightly regulating what school employees can do on social media when it comes to interacting with students and discuss their work and the school district.
The proposed policy, titled “Employee Use of Social Media,” is due for a vote at the school board meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday. With little discussion, the board gave unanimous preliminary approval to the new policy on May 5, but some parents raised questions about the proposed policy in the days that followed.
Harmony Hobbs, a parent of public school children, sees the new policy as a clear effort to muzzle employees tempted to share concerns about their school or the school district.
“Fundamentally, our leaders want the ability to fire any employee who has the audacity to speak out against them on social media,” Hobbs wrote Monday in a public Facebook post. “SILENCE WILL NOT WORK.”
Benjamin Owens, another parent and practicing lawyer, said it took him only minutes to conclude the proposed policy was unconstitutional and “has no chance of surviving a legal challenge”.
“In particular, it is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, involves due process, and would chill First Amendment-protected speech,” Owens said.
Despite these concerns, several Louisiana school districts have similar policies for employees using social media. One of the first was the Orleans Parish School Board in June 2016, which is nearly identical to what East Baton Rouge Parish is currently considering.
Locally, Livingston Parish Schools adopted a similar policy in July 2020. Lafayette Parish Schools considered a version of this policy in November 2018, but quietly dropped the idea.
Currently, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System has a set of rules about what school employees can do on school property and with school computers. But there are no specific rules about what employees can do on the Internet outside of school.
The school district has a policy establishing general “standards of conduct” for employees that can be invoked if they do anything questionable outside of school.
The new policy includes several new employee-specific restrictions that, if not followed, could result in disciplinary action up to and including termination:
- No publication of confidential information about students, employees or businesses of the school district.
- No posting that “defames or defames” the school board, school board members, school employees, or students.
- All posts “related to or referring to the school district, students, and other employees” must be “professional.”
- No posting of “profane, pornographic, obscene, indecent, lewd, vulgar or sexually offensive language, images or graphics or other communications which could reasonably be expected to cause substantial disruption of the school environment.
- No posts with “inappropriate content that negatively impacts their ability to perform their job”.
- No posting “identifiable images of a student or student’s family without the permission of the student and the student’s parent or legal guardian.”
- Never accept current students as “friends” or “followers” or otherwise connect with students on social media sites unless there is a “family relationship or other type of appropriate relationship that originated outside the school setting.
The policy defines social media to include personal websites, blogs, wikis, social networking sites, online forums, virtual worlds and video sharing websites. It also has a catch-all that covers “any other social media generally available to the public or consumers that is not part of the school board’s technology network (e.g. Web 2.0 tools, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedln, Flickr, Youtube).”
Gwynn Shamlin, the board’s general counsel, told the school board on May 5 that he helped develop the new policy after receiving a request from Nichola Hall, director of human resources.
“This looks at our employees’ social media usage, which may occur outside of our system, including internet and email usage,” Shamlin said. “So it’s the use of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Shamlin said the policy was developed so as not to violate employee rights.
“We had to walk a bit of a tightrope to develop this because there are free speech issues that you have to be careful of,” Shamlin said.
In his letter, Owens notes that a judge on May 10 struck down an employee policy used by Jackson Public Schools in Jackson, Mississippi that bears similarities to the one East Baton Rouge is considering. In that case, the judge ruled that the rules that the policy violated the Mississippi state constitution, “but also seriously threaten the public interest in public education.”
“By silencing its teachers, staff, employees, and their organizational advocate, JPS deprives its students, their parents, and other interested parties such as legislators and taxpayers, of important information necessary to fully understand and participate in their system of public education, and call for meaningful improvement where and when needed,” Special Circuit Judge Jess Dickinson wrote in the ruling.
In Louisiana, the city of New Orleans recently settled litigation over an employee social media policy in a 2020 case brought by two public library workers who said the policy violated their First Amendment rights. As part of the settlement, the city government removed the most controversial aspects of the previous policy, including a provision that city employees are not allowed to “engage or respond to negative or derogatory messages.” on city government.
Katie Schwartzmann, director of the First Amendment Clinic at Tulane University School of Law, helped represent these two city employees. She said the city of New Orleans’ policy was different in some ways, but she said the proposed policy in East Baton Rouge raises several potential First Amendment concerns. For example, the policy does not define “professional” when it comes to what employees post on the Internet and could be used to target otherwise protected free speech.
“What does it mean to be professional and is it meant to cover criticism of otherwise public issues?” says Schwartzmann.