Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks at a press conference. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has revised a controversial and restrictive social media policy, which city employees were forced to sign in 2020, in order to settle a federal lawsuit filed by two public library workers who said the policy violated their First Amendment rights.

The Cantrell administration sent out an email to all employees on Wednesday announcing the change. The new version, effective April 29, takes out all of the most controversial aspects of the previous one, including a provision that said city employees are not allowed to “engage or respond to negative or disparaging posts” about city government.

“Free speech is a constitutional right and working for the City doesn’t mean that right just goes away,” Andrew Okun, one of the two plaintiffs, said in a written statement. “We filed this lawsuit because we knew the City policy went too far. Changing the policy was our only goal, and it is rewarding to know that our efforts will preserve our First Amendment rights, as well as those of our colleagues.”

The new version also gets rid of a provision that said that employees cannot “use their position as a city employee to promote opinions, products or causes.” (That provision was originally written in the 2013 version of the policy under Mayor Mitch Landrieu and was carried over to Cantrell’s 2020 version.)

The Cantrell administration and the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Okun and Eren Wilson — filed a joint motion to dismiss the suit on Wednesday, which said “The revised policy resolves this litigation.” Okun and Wilson are being represented by attorneys with the Tulane University Law School First Amendment Clinic, including director Katie Schwartzmann.

The Cantrell administration rolled out the new policies in June 2020, and told all employees they had to sign a copy and turn it back in. About a year later, two city employees filed a federal lawsuit against the city, asking the court to rule that the policy is unconstitutional and prevent the city from enforcing it. 

“The City of New Orleans has adopted an employee conduct policy that violates the free speech rights of all City employees,” the suit said. “An employee can be fired for any speech critical of the City— regardless of whether that speech pertains to or has any impact upon the person’s job. The Policy also provides for discipline or termination if an employee engages in “offensive” speech, which is undefined by the Policy, and is a term so vague that employees cannot know what speech might get them fired.”

The two employees, according to the suit, both had lives outside of their city jobs that could have put them at odds with the new policy. Okun is also a writer and editor, according to the suit, and Wilson is a TikTok creator and Discord streamer. 

“It was extremely concerning that we could potentially lose our jobs for making comments online that were unrelated to our professional roles,” Wilson said in a statement on Wednesday. “The City’s policy reached far beyond our jobs as City workers and regulated our private lives.”

Their suit said the new policy left open questions about what social media posts, exactly, would be classified as “negative or disparaging” and whether the restrictions fell within the bounds of First Amendment protections.

“If there is a broken water line in front of their homes, they cannot post about it on Facebook—because it would be ‘negative’ speech about the City agency Sewerage and Water Board. Or if their car loses an axle in a gaping pothole, they cannot even send a Slack message to a friend bemoaning the City’s failure to repair the streets. Unless their speech were entirely positive, City employees could not observe that the Hard Rock Hotel collapsed or that the City was subject of a cyber-attack.”

The suit also raised questions about the policy’s demand that employees “avoid the offensive.”

“Do not post any defamatory, libelous, vulgar, violent, obscene, abusive, profane, threatening, racially and ethnically hateful, or otherwise offensive or illegal information or material,” the memo said.

The lawsuit said the clause was so broad it was hard to know what exactly would violate it. 

“What is ‘offensive?’ What is ‘vulgar?’ ‘violent?’ ‘obscene?’ or ‘abusive?’ What is ‘speech that promotes, fosters, or perpetuates discrimination of protected classes, sexual harassment, or illegal activity’?” The suit said. “The Policy’s terms are so vague that City employees do not know what speech actually may run afoul of the Policy. This has an enormous chilling effect on speech that is otherwise protected.”

One reason it could have a “chilling effect” is the potential consequences. The social media policy is contained in a larger city policy called “Standards for Behavior for Employee Conduct.” Violations of the policy can lead to employee discipline, potentially including termination.

The Cantrell administration did not respond to a request for comment on this story. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...