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Library workers sue New Orleans, claim criticism stifled by social media policy


It bans employees from “engaging or responding to negative or disparaging posts about city departments, employees or policies.”

NEW ORLEANS — Two public library workers have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her top deputy, alleging that a June 2020 policy infringes on their free speech rights and threatens to punish them for any criticism they may express, even in their private lives.

Andrew Okun and Erin Wilson filed the suit Thursday, claiming they initially balked at the new policy when it was announced in June but were required to sign onto it in August to keep their jobs. Both library employees are active on social media in their private time and are concerned the broad language of the new policy will prevent them from expressing certain beliefs or concerns.

City Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano issued revisions to Policy No. 83(R), on June 17, 2020, that specifically addressed employees’ use of social media, including what employees can say on private messaging channels such as Slack and Discord or while playing online video games at home. It bans employees from “engaging or responding to negative or disparaging posts about city departments, employees or policies.”

It also prohibits posting “defamatory, libelous, vulgar, violent, obscene, abusive, profane, threatening, racially and ethnically hateful, or otherwise offensive or illegal information or material.”

Wilson is especially concerned. They use gender-neutral pronouns, regularly comment on TikTok and other social media about transgender issues and are worried about how the city will define “offensive” information.

What’s more, on March 16, 2020, Wilson spoke out in an anonymous interview with WWL-TV about the city’s decision to keep libraries open to the public, even though schools statewide had already been closed because of the pandemic.

At a time when few people were wearing masks, Library Director Gabriel Morley sent an email to library employees on March 13, 2020, telling them to report to work as normal. Dozens of library workers called in sick and signed a petition asking the city to reconsider.

Speaking anonymously at the time, Wilson told WWL-TV that library employees feared for their health and were not being allowed to claim civil leave to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

Shortly after that, the Cantrell administration reversed course and closed the libraries to the public and allowed workers to claim civil leave.

Wilson agreed to let WWL-TV disclose that Wilson was the person who spoke out in March 2020 and said if the policy changes that Montano announced three months later had been in place at the time, they could have been fired for making disparaging comments about a city policy.

Wilson and Okun are represented by Katie Schwartzmann of the Tulane Law Clinic. As the former legal director for the ACLU of Louisiana, Schwartzmann has handled many free speech cases and said this New Orleans policy limits government employees’ free speech more than any other she’s ever seen.

The city has not yet responded to the lawsuit, which has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Nanette Jolivette Brown. The city press office has not yet responded to a request for comment Thursday.

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