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GovBytes: Should Government Regulate Employees’ Personal Social Media Use?

Government employees know that they have to be careful about what they say when blogging, Tweeting, or posting on Facebook in an official capacity. But what about on your own time? According to Government Technology, officials in Kent County, Delaware recently tried to bar employees from posting negative comments about their job on social media websites. The catch is that this policy doesn’t just cover working hours: it limits what employees can post online, even when they’re not at work

Social Media Usage Becoming a Free Speech Question for Governments

The county’s Levy Court — the equivalent of a county council — has an existing rule that bars employees from using government equipment for personal social media activity at work. But a recent proposal would extend that ban to include activity during non-work times, specifically as it relates to commentary that disparages co-workers or reflects unfavorably toward the county government.

Local media in Kent County are up in arms over the matter.

“You can’t criticize county government decisions on your own time?” questioned a May 6 editorial on delawareonline.com. “This is a proposal that requires considerable rethinking. Kent County should stick with workplace rules.”

The outcry has been strong enough that officials have tabled the policy for the moment. However, this raises bigger questions about the intersection between private/public life, social media, and free speech. Is venting about a bad day at work on a personal Twitter account any different from saying those same remarks to some friends at happy hour? I suspect that agencies are more worried about disparaging online remarks because they may reach more people, and once it’s out there, there’s a permanent record of it. In addition to limiting employee free speech, this policy also seems incredibly difficult to enforce. Posting that your boss sucks is definitely a violation, but what about complaining that the copier is jammed again?

Even without such a policy, the article also points out that it’s increasingly difficult to separate out public and private roles in the workplace. While one of my employers had a rule against Googling or Facebooking job candidates lest it bias us, other employers do this as a matter of course. Like it or not, it is growing increasingly difficult to create a clear separation between work and personal life.

What do you think? Can or should government try to regulate an employee’s online behavior outside of working hours?


“GovBytes” is a blog series created by GovLoop in partnership with Government Technology. If you see great a story on Gov Tech and want to ask a question around it, please send it to [email protected].

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