The ACLU of Louisiana has filed suit to invalidate a policy of the City of Abbeville Police Department prohibiting department employees from engaging in commentary on social media if the comments might give a “negative view towards” the police department, the City or its employees or residents. Plaintiff Colt Landry, a Sergeant in the Abbeville Police Department, has made comments while off duty on his private Facebook page about working conditions at the Police Department. Concerned that this policy violates his free speech rights, Sgt. Landry has sued to stop enforcement of the policy, known as General Order 222.
Sgt. Landry maintains a private Facebook page on which he, like millions of Americans, posts comments about issues of concern to him. Like many others, his comments occasionally address conditions at his workplace. Unlike most Americans, he is subject to discipline if he posts anything that could be construed as critical – not just of his workplace but of anyone who lives in his community.
“Public employees retain their Constitutional rights to free speech,” said Marjorie R. Esman, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director. “Sgt. Landry, like the rest of us, has the right to say what he wants on his private Facebook page, maintained on his own time. He shouldn’t have to risk his job for stating his opinion about his community.”
General Order 222 does not adequately define what is prohibited, which makes it impossible for anyone to know what they may and may not say. While it bans “insulting, profane or derogatory” messages about the “City of Abbeville, the Abbeville Police Department, its officials, employees or citizens,” it does not define what constitutes “insulting, profane or derogatory.” It’s not clear whether Sgt. Landry or anyone else could post a photograph of a dilapidated building, which could be construed as “derogatory.” Nor is it clear whether someone could post a comment disagreeing with a public official’s public position on an issue. “Without clear guidance as to what is and what isn’t permitted, the employees of the City of Abbeville police department are effectively prevented from using social media altogether,” continued Esman. “This total ban on the expression of personal opinions and statements is simply not permitted in a free country.”
Defendants are Abbeville Mayor Mark Piazza and Chief of Police Tony Hardy.
In October 2015, the City of Abbeville paid a total of $32,900.00 in settlement of the Sgt. Landry's suit. The City of Abbeville also revised their policy in accordance with guidelines set by the ACLU.
The revised policy assures employees that "social media activity and speech as citizens relating to matters on a public concern are First Amendment protected forms of speech and are not subject to APD regulation or punishment."