Policy restrains town workers online behavior (8/27/09)

Selectboard considers new rules on technology use

Aug. 27, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

New rules that would regulate municipal workers’ use of e-mail and cell phones and limit off-color communication on social networking sites are being considered by the town of Williston.

The town’s first technology use policy was discussed at length during Monday night’s Selectboard meeting before being sent back to staff for revisions.

The four-page policy casts a wide net, addressing old-school telephone communication and newer technology such as Facebook and YouTube. Much of it formalizes rules already familiar to most private and public employees.

For example, the policy limits telephone and e-mail use to work-related matters, except for brief personal calls and occasional e-mail messages from home. When using the town’s computer system, employees cannot distribute confidential data, illegally copy software or send sexually explicit images or messages.

But the policy also includes a separate section governing use of social networking sites and blogs.

Employees who identify themselves as town workers on Facebook, for example, must be respectful and avoid vulgar language, the policy states. Personal Web sites and blogs cannot be used “to disparage the town, employees/officials of the town, or the public,” nor can they be used to discuss drug use or other illegal activities.

Such a policy has long been planned but kept getting delayed by more pressing matters, said Town Manager Rick McGuire. Work on it finally started when Beth Nolan, a Williston resident and University of Vermont graduate with a master’s degree in public administration, inquired about internship possibilities. McGuire suggested she draft a technology use policy.

McGuire said there has been no major online embarrassment or security breach — yet.

“I like to anticipate things if I can and maybe prevent them,” he said.

Most of the policy would likely pass legal muster, said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, who reviewed a copy of the policy.

“I don’t think there’s anything here out of the ordinary,” Gilbert said.

Still, he said a couple of provisions raise concerns.

The section dealing with social networking could be interpreted as forbidding speech that would otherwise enjoy First Amendment protection, he said. Such rules restricting off-duty activities are only constitutional when an employee clearly states his place of employment.

One part of the policy does say that it applies to those who identify themselves as town employees, but Gilbert said later language leaves open the possibility that such conduct is prohibited whether or not the employee says he works for Williston.

Also troubling are enforcement provisions, he said. The policy allows the town manager or his designee to review violations “on a case by case basis.” Gilbert said such open-ended language can lead to arbitrary enforcement.

McGuire said anticipating every possible situation is difficult, so the policy was written broadly to allow discretion. He said the policy tries to ensure employees don’t engage in private conduct that compromises their ability to carry out public duties.

The policy also addresses an issue that has become settled case law in the computer age.

“Employees should have no expectation of privacy regarding anything created, sent or received on the town computer system, including work related items sent on the town computer system through personal laptops,” the policy states.

“It’s almost quaint these days for employers to set up rules saying they have access to data,” Gilbert said, noting that courts have repeatedly ruled that employees have no privacy rights when using work computers.

The Selectboard, however, did not discuss the privacy and free-speech issues raised by the policy. Members instead focused on safety, debating a provision that requires the use of hands-free cellular phones when driving town vehicles.

The rule was strongly opposed by some department heads, Nolan told the board. They felt that cellular phones were essential tools for some employees.

Judy Sassorossi argued for an even stricter rule that would forbid all cell phone use while driving. She said evidence shows that talking on phones — hand-free or not — is unsafe.

“It looks pretty bad if a town employee driving a town vehicle … is distracted when talking on a cell phone,” she said. “And the liability is huge.”

Other board members, however, were not willing to ban cell phone use while driving. The board instead agreed to add language saying the practice should be avoided when operating a town vehicle.

The board directed staff to make other minor revisions to the policy. Those changes would give the town manager or his designee authority to review software additions to the town’s computer system and to permit individual departments to adopt additional technology policies.

McGuire said the board will consider the revised policy at its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 21.