A proposed new rule governing City of Seattle employees’ conduct on social media would place new restrictions on what employees are allowed to say online, and would include not just full-time workers but anyone who contracts, works part-time, volunteers, or takes an internship at the city. The social-media restrictions would cover everything from harassment, doxxing, and expressing racist sentiments online (all reasonable restrictions for public servants) to anything that “negatively impacts the City of Seattle’s ability to serve the public,” a phrase that is undefined in the legislation and that does not appear in the Seattle Municipal Code.
The rule, which is modeled on (but is much more extensive than) the Seattle Police Department’s Code of Conduct for social media, would also prohibit city workers, contractors, and volunteers from disclosing or even discussing any city information that is either “confidential” (defined as anything that would not be disclosed through a public records requests, including policy drafts like the one I am describing) or “any information that is not already considered public.” Here’s that paragraph in full:
Unless a City employee is an authorized public information officer, an employee whose primary responsibility at the City is to communicate directly to the public on behalf of their department, employees shall not post or otherwise disseminate any confidential information they have access to or have learned about as a result of their employment with the City of Seattle, or discuss any information that is not already considered public without the prior consent or authorization of City department communications.
This restriction, interpreted liberally, would effectively ban all city employees from talking to the media unless explicitly authorized by a city public information officer to do so. The city’s whistleblower code only prohibits retaliation against employees who speak out about “waste[s] of public funds, unsafe practices and violations of law including violation of the City’s Ethics Code.”
Disclosing “confidential” information is already prohibited, although it happens routinely, especially in administrations that interpret public disclosure laws broadly—for example, by blacking out entire documents or simply refusing to provide them on the grounds that anything that isn’t already official policy or law is part of the city’s “deliberative process.”
The ban on discussing anything that isn’t “already considered public” would be a broad expansion of this prohibition, effectively barring city employees from bringing forward concerns or information of public interest unless a department spokesperson answering to the mayor signs off on it in advance. Whistleblowers like the Seattle Silence Breakers, who brought forward stories about sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination within several city departments, might be less likely to come forward in the future if city policy explicitly bars them from discussing not just confidential information but any information that isn’t approved in advance by an official spokesperson for the city.
Shaun Van Eyk, the union representative for the Professional and Technical Employees Union, Local 17, which represents many city employees, says the proposed rule as written is “pretty far afield from anything we would accept.” He says the city has been quietly working on the rule for more a year, but he just became aware of it in the past two months.
Anthony Derrick, a digital advisor for the mayor’s office, says it’s “very common” for cities to have social media policies, and provided links to the policies for South San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. None of these policies, however, included any details about city employees’ personal use of social media; rather, all three are about how city employees should operate the official social media accounts of city agencies.
Derrick did not respond directly to a question about what would constitute “any information that is not considered public,” and pointed to the whistleblower code and existing language barring the disclosure of confidential information in the city’s municipal code. “It goes without saying that anything we potentially implement in the future would not infringe upon employees’ freedom of speech or civil liberties,” he says.
The city had hoped to wrap up discussions about the policy with “representatives from nearly all departments” by the end of March, according to Derrick, but the COVID-19 outbreak has put those conversations on hold.