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Orem adopts new social media policy after national free speech group threatened suit

By Carlene Coombs - | Jun 14, 2024

Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo

Shelves of movies of various genres are pictured in the media collection Thursday, March 9, 2017, in the basement of the Orem Public Library.

Orem City has updated its social media policy after the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, sent a letter to the city last year calling for free speech protections for city employees, specifically librarians.

The new policy removes provisions that restricted city employees from posting “disparaging” comments about their workplace, city policies, citizens and persons associated with the city and prohibited them from posting information that would “discredit or disparage” the city.

It also clearly states that employees are “generally free to express themselves as private citizens on social media sites” before outlining some restrictions, such as not using personal accounts for internal business communication or posting city business that has not been made public yet.

“Orem City recently made several improvements to its employee social media policy. These changes were made based upon research conducted by the city’s legal department and are designed to better align the policy with constitutional principles,” said Pete Wolfely, Orem City communication manager, in a statement to the Daily Herald.

“This revised policy represents our commitment to the principles of freedom of expression and to the First Amendment and will benefit both employees and city government as a whole,” the statement continued. “We appreciate the close collaboration we’ve had with FIRE throughout this process, as it has helped us shape this policy change to best serve our city.”

The new policy also removes a provision specifically prohibiting the use of “ethnic slurs” or “profanity” that expresses bias against a protected class. The updated version still states employees who identify themselves as city employee on social media cannot use speech that disparages or expresses bias against a race, religion or protected class.

FIRE sent a letter to Orem City last June asking the city to revise its social media policy to provide First Amendment protections to employees when expressing themselves as private citizens.

The 2023 letter also addressed concerns about the library prohibiting heritage month displays, such as Pride Month or Black History Month, and limiting librarians’ access to professional development resources from the Utah Library Association.

“We are grateful to the City of Orem for working with FIRE and ULA to ensure that Orem librarians are free to participate in the ULA, that displays honoring Pride and heritage months are allowed once again, and that city employees, both in and out of the library, know that they have a constitutional right to speak out and express themselves even if they are criticizing the city,” ULA President Erin Warnick said in a statement in a article published by FIRE last week responding to the updated policy.

Orem responded to FIRE’s 2023 letter by disputing the claim that the city was retaliating against library employees for criticizing the policy of not having heritage displays.

The city’s response also included the display policy for the library, saying displays are the responsibility of the library director and book selection should include a variety of perspectives.

That policy did not specifically prohibit heritage month displays and stated that excluded display items include material that has significant pornographic material or is harmful to minors, as defined by state law.

In a February 2023 opinion piece in the Daily Herald, Orem City Council member LaNae Millett wrote that discussions in the community regarding heritage month displays “led to division.”

“We recently heard from some patrons who wanted the library to return to creating displays for various heritage or diversity months,” Millett wrote. “Earlier discussions on this led to division in the community and interfered with the welcoming environment we strive for. We support city management’s decision to end discontent by eliminating formal displays. We support our librarians’ efforts to showcase a variety of the library’s vast collections.”

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