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.


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