Union accuses GSA of censorship over social media policy

National Federation of Federal Employees' Council of GSA Locals decries GSA social media directive

Federal employee union leaders say workers may be unfairly censored and prohibited from free speech under a General Services Administration order on employee use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

That GSA order, which was issued by Casey Coleman, GSA’s Chief Information Officer, offers guidelines for employee use of social media for official and non-official use. It includes recommendations for use of disclaimers noting that an opinion expressed by a GSA employee on a social media site is not necessarily an official policy. The order also cautioned employees to “have no expectation of privacy” on social media networks.

“Be aware of your GSA association in online social networks,” the July 2009 order states. “If you identify yourself as a GSA employee or have a public-facing position for which your GSA association is known to the general public, ensure your profile and related content (even if it is of a personal and not an official nature) is consistent with how you wish to present yourself as a GSA professional. …Have no expectation of privacy.”

“This is like Russia,” Charles Paidock, spokesman for the National Federation of Federal Employees’ (NFFE) Council of GSA Locals, said today in an interview. “It is shocking.”

Representatives of that NFFE council said collective bargaining talks broke down on July 16 due to disagreements over the GSA’s order on social media issued in July 2009.

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Paidock claims the GSA rule goes too far in limiting employees’ private use of social media, and he alleges that in some cases it appears to conflict with existing policies. He said the union raised the subject of social media policy in negotiations because there have been a number of free-speech-related incidents in recent years with employees’ personal e-mail messages, and he anticipates similar problems with social media messages. To date, Paidock said he was not aware of any major incidents involving censorship of a GSA employee use social media.

Even so, the GSA order of July 2009 is too broad, Paidock charges.

“However a supervisor interprets one of your messages could mean immediate termination,” Paidock said. “Union officials wouldn't be allowed to contact members on issues. If an employee contacted their congressmen, it's considered lobbying, and not allowed. It's totalitarian censorship."

The union has asked for a federal mediator to participate in the negotiations to help break the impasse. That could happen as early as this week, Paidock said.

The union also has proposed its own version of a social media policy, in the form of a proposed memorandum of understanding between the GSA and the union.

“The agency recognizes that the public interest is best served through a free exchange of opinions, ideas, and information, and will not act to curb such exchanges, between and among parties, co-workers, and/or clients, either internal or external,” states the union’s proposed policy on social media.

A GSA official forwarded a statement in response, saying:
"GSA encourages the use of social media technologies to enhance communication, collaboration, and information exchange in support of GSA’s mission.”

“GSA is currently in negotiations with NFFE to go through normal labor management processes to reach resolution. Last fall, GSA successfully completed negotiations with another labor organization representing GSA employees on this same issue.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Sat, Dec 11, 2010

I can not believe employees will possibly be muzzled into not having their own Facebook page. I totally disagree with policing employees outside of working hours. Yes, we are to be professional, but let's not confuse having fun with being unprofessional in the workplace. All employers advise its workforce to have balanced lives. This does not support a balanced lifestyle. Employees need their personal time to play.

Tue, Jul 27, 2010

I believe that the raging conversation about the use of social media in the workplace must have been similar to getting telephones in the workplace for the first time except that no one expected that the use of telephones for doing personal, or nongovernmental, was in inherent right when phones came into play. People have embraced social media fervently, in many cases without seeming safety, security oand/ or privacy concerns. Just as free speech does not afford one the freedpom to shout fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists, the use of social media on the job does not come carte blanche. When you work for the government you take an oath to protect the constitution and the laws that it has engendered, and you sign on to being a good steward of all things made possible through the usage of tax dollars. Sometimes protecting something bigger than yourself is the best way to ulitmately protect yourself.

Wed, Jul 21, 2010

Yes, Mr. Paidock. The government's policy about Facebook and Twitter is just like Russia. Saying that federal employees should abide by existing rules is exactly like what Stalin did. No wonder negotiations broke down. If I had to talk with this guy, I would have walked out after five minutes.

Wed, Jul 21, 2010 Michael D. Long Knoxville, TN

Unless the disclosure is an official government position and necessary for the efficient operation of the agency, it should not be put forth in a public forum by any government employee during time compensated by taxpayer dollars. Personal use of the internet during a lunch break to update a personal site is acceptable, providing the person does not represent affiliation with the agency to infer the opinion is the government's position. Government employees should be aware that the GSA policy is closely aligned with similar positions taken by commercial entities. While individuals have freedom of speech, adverse communications made where affiliation with the company is clearly indicated or actively promoted are most often grounds for termination. Even free speech made as part of an individuals private life, wholly disassociated from work, sometimes results in the loss of a job when a clear connection between the company and the individual can be made and the satements are deemed to reflect poorly on the individual, and by affilitation on the organization. Freedom is not free, nor is free speech without consequence.

Wed, Jul 21, 2010

Truth always hurt - FREEDOM OF SPEECH

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