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I work for a public entity (public service for a US state government, executive branch), and my field is data science/statistics.

In my personal life I am involved in environmentalism, with expertise in energy issues; this is related to my professional work. I am not dogmatic, I don't think my views are extreme, and I am always willing to change my mind if presented with good data and evidence.

However, today I was reprimanded for a social media post I made on my personal twitter. The account is not associated with my work. I posted about a very poor bill in my locality that essentially does nothing. It is a status-quo bill that is billed as substantial progress when it literally is repeating things already in stated law.

I was, and am, upset that a public official X is pushing this and not trying harder, so I called that official out. I didn't tweet at them, just referenced them. I did not use foul language, crude memes, or anything like that. Just critical words about their work - and no ad hominem.

Is it remotely OK for my supervisor's supervisor to prohibit me from making social media posts that name elected officials? On one hand, I feel bad that I may have looked unprofessional in the eyes of management, but on the other I believe ardently in what I said; I believe I was saying the right thing; I believe it is my first amendment right.

Yes, I work for a public entity, but I am a citizen outside of work. I should have the right to discuss public issues and public officials outside of hours on my personal account (by the way, I do not have a "work" twitter that could be misconstrued).

I am considering raising this to my union. But, I am wondering if anyone has any suggestions on how to handle this with my workplaces' upper management. These are people that I interact with all the time given the profile of my work/visibility of my work despite my relatively lower position.

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    No, it's not "OK", but I suspect the question you really want answered is "Is it legal?", which would be better answered by a lawyer in your area. – Maybe_Factor Jan 17 at 3:02
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    How did they know it was your twitter account? And is there any information on your personal twitter which may identify or related you to a the public entity? – Shadowzee Jan 17 at 3:04
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    Legal and OK - I think both? And yes, the twitter is my first and last name, honest. I have few followers if that matters - like 150 or so etc. And, I am not a spokesperson - not like I am broadcasting on behalf of any org. – pythagoras Jan 17 at 3:06
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    Guess you should always be wary of social media. I posted on reddit (using an account with the same nickname as my email nickname) that I was searching for a job. Then found out my employer at the time had been looking through my reddit posts. – user25730 Jan 17 at 3:39
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    @BernhardDöbler to tweet at someone is to include their twitter handle such as "@Twitterhandle is an environmental cancer" as opposed to "<Public Personality> is an environmental cancer". The difference is when you 'at' someone (like in the former example), they get notified of your tweet. – 520 says Reinstate Monica Jan 17 at 9:23
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The workplace I work at has a Social Media Policy, to help out with these kind of cases. It might be worth it to inquire if such a policy exists in your workplace as well.

Just because you don't think it's offensive, doesn't mean everyone else thinks so as well. With a few clicks anyone could find out through my LinkedIn for what company I work and as such, things I said on personal basis could reflect badly on my employer.

There has been several cases in my company where someone was asked to remove certain Social Media posts, because they were against the policy.

While it's definitely your right to call out public officers, perhaps Social Media is not the medium for you to do this on, as anyone could find out where you work and link your opinion to your employer.

So yes, your employer can request you to remove certain Social Media posts as they do not want to be associated with that post. And yes, you also have the right to refuse that.

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    But does your employer actually have the right to infringe on the private speech of their employees like that? Just because they try to enforce this policy and nobody dares to object doesn't mean that what they are doing is legal. – Philipp Jan 17 at 11:54
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    The employee is ultimately going to be seen as a reflection of the employer. For example-- so long as an employee doesn't use hate speech, it would not be illegal or against the rules for them to post, "White people are the best race." However, if it gets back to the company, that reflects poorly on them, and they would be within their rights to terminate their employment. Likewise, they can terminate employment over a post saying, "I like dogs better than cats" or any other opinion that they feel is controversial and damaging. They don't need to provide a reason in right to work states. – NegativeFriction Jan 17 at 13:27
  • @Philipp They allow me to say whatever I want, but if I am connected to them in any way (like LinkedIn), they would like me to stick to some guidelines. It's not as harsh as it might seem, the guidelines are mostly common sense (no hate speech, no business information). A comment on a different answer said: "free speech does not mean free of consequence" and one of the consequences might be the interests of employer and employee not aligning anymore. Ps. Please believe me my coworkers would definitely object if they had an issue. :) – Caroline Jan 17 at 14:21
  • "the guidelines are mostly common sense" and "nobody has an issue" are no arguments that this is legal. Maybe it is legal in your jurisdiction, maybe it isn't. But "my company does it but isn't abusing it, so it's probably fine" isn't reliable evidence for either statement. – Philipp Jan 17 at 14:48
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    @Philipp absolutely has a point and as far as I am concerned, this is also what OP is asking. Yes sure, some things may reflect badly on the employer and they may ask to comply with their guidelines, but do you have to? Another comment mentions, "they can terminate employment over a post" - what legal basis are such statements based on? I imagine when employers use hate speech or violate the law otherwise, then this may be a valid legal circumstance, but without violation of the law I don't see how this is possible. The proper answer here is "ask a lawyer / legal SE", but Philipp is spot on. – Koenigsberg Jan 17 at 20:29
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When you work in the public sector, the rules are a bit different.

I actually suspended or deleted many of my social network accounts when I did contract work for the government, and I have had family members that had security clearances.

Your boss ABSOLUTELY has the right to keep you from engaging in getting involved in politics. In the military, for example, you cannot say a word about elected officials.

In addition to that, it's bad form, and can bring attention/consequences not only on you, but on your coworkers and your bosses. This is not a fight you can win, nor is it a hill you want to die on. Work somewhere else if you want to get involved in local politics.

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  • "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; [...]". I know this does not apply to private entities; but I was under the impression this does apply to the execuitive branch of government, including any internal rules of government entities? IANAL, but how can it be constitutional for the boss of a government entity "to keep you from engaging in politics"? Has this been tested before the Supreme Court? – Georg Patscheider Apr 23 at 8:54
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Is it remotely OK for my supervisor's supervisor to prohibit me from making social media posts that name elected officials?

It depends what you mean by "OK" in this context. If you are asking if they have the right to prohibit these sorts of posts, the answer is probably "Yes", but you need to check your union contract, employee handbook, etc.

I am considering raising this to my union.

That is exactly the correct approach.

Talk with your union rep. Ask if what you are doing is okay from their point of view, and if they will protect you for this sort of activity going forward.

If not, stop tweeting about public officials if you value your job.

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Considering the sad state of fake news media nowadays, here's a headline you should expect.

"Data Scientist at State Department of Environment criticizes Mayor Doe for Bill C-999. Here's why you should be concerned"

"Climate Change researchers at agency think this bill is problematic"

"Employees at Agency X blasts Mayor Doe for ineffective bill"

Now your tweet is an official representation of your agency on mayor doe's bill.

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    Good point, any journalist with an agenda can easily find your tweets and the fact that OP works at government agency X is probably a matter of public record – Eric Smith Jan 17 at 17:06
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We live in a world where someone might be forced to pay a £50,000 fine and attend an education course for posting something to a friend on twitter, in which none of the involved took offense neither it was related to their professional capacity in any way.

So yes, it looks like we are, as a society, traveling down the path where we consider anything said online to be representative of both ourselves and everything we are associated with. In part there is some logic to it as if you have someone who has a pretty offensive online persona, and anyone can figure out where and to whom that person works for with a couple of clicks, then it could reflect badly on that workplace image the same way it would if you were shouting offensive things in the street in front of a store.

Legally, we are waiting for a case to open precedent. There is generally a legal void surrounding the role of our online personas and the impact and responsibility they should bear on our professional capacity.

As a bit of general advice, treat any social network as if you were personally saying those things to not only every person you know, but everyone you might ever know. If you do not feel comfortable or believe it is not a good idea saying it, then maybe you should refrain from doing it on a personally identifiable account. You can always create a separate online persona to express your views without fear.

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    I wouldnt exactly compare that article to OPs situation. OP is a random employee, his job is not being a public figure. Whilst the football player in the article is a public figure. His job isnt just playing football, its also promoting things and representing the club.As such, his personal twitter could also be considered a part of his work. – TineO Jan 17 at 9:47
  • I see your point, and it might be true that this particular case is not comparable. However, I see such a footballer no different than a random person saying something online that they shouldn't which gets out of hand or "viral". That person initially would not be a public figure, but the statement itself made her so and still has repercussions. See this example which yes, it is quite extreme but the offensiveness of a statement is the eye of the beholder. – H4uZ Jan 17 at 9:57
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    The content of the statement(unless it is literally something illegal) is irellevant, free speech applies to all speech, even racist bigoted bullshit. I strongly believe that unless you are a public figure for the company, the company should not have any involvement with your social networks. So in this case I would defend her right to say whatever she wants. Unfortunatelly social media is like this, things blow up way out of proportion and people no longer have control over what they actually meant. But if you are already a public figure connected to the company, then your social is theirs. – TineO Jan 17 at 10:04
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    Notice that I'm not judging if it is correct or not to behave like these companies. I agree one's personal life should be kept safe from intruding work policies. However, it is true that more and more is becoming the accepted norm that our work has power over our public statements. And I get their point of view: they should have the right to not associate themselves with ideals that are not their own, and while you are free to say whatever you want, free speech does not mean free of consequence. And with today's technology, everyone is or can be a public figure overnight. – H4uZ Jan 17 at 10:12
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    @H4uZ They actually are different, depending on jurisdiction. There are court roulings that argue a verdict taking into consideration special circumstances due to a party being a public figure. While it is intuitive that a famous person must be treated the way everyone else is treated, there can be legal differences. – Koenigsberg Jan 17 at 14:00
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You said,

Yes, I work for a public entity, but I am a citizen outside of work. I should have the right to discuss public issues and public officials outside of hours on my personal account.

Unfortunately, that's not really true.

Many question the legality of this sort of social media policy, but the answer to that question is fairly black and white. The First Amendment only prevents the government from limiting your speech, not your employer. Even if the government is your employer, they can still make restrictions on your freedom of speech for matters of public concern (i.e. you commenting on social media about a law or government policy). Your employer is absolutely allowed to fire you for violating these policies, and the policy itself is not illegal. The only situation where you would have a legitimate case for objecting would be if the policy or your firing were discriminatory, which doesn't seem to be the case.

So, in terms of your title question,

Can my employer moderate the use of my personal Twitter?

the answer is basically yes, they can - at least with respect to the details you've presented in this question.

You mentioned a union, so you should check with your union to see if there is anything being missed, i.e. a clause in a union contract that changes this policy or states how it can be enforced. Otherwise, it's likely the case that there's not much you can do other than abide by the policy or find another job.

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  • ...at least with respect to the details you've presented in this question. OP passes the first two tests at the link, speaking as a private citizen and speaking about a public concern, but we don't have enough information to know if they fail the third test. – BSMP Jan 18 at 7:18
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You should review the rules regarding social media use for federal employees in the United States:

https://ask.fedweek.com/federal-government-policies/social-media/

If you were tweeting on your own time, then there's no problem; your boss was out of line. Does your personal Twitter in any way reference your position/work with the federal government? Then your social media use might be inappropriate even if it is your personal account.

If your tweets detailed non-public information, you'd be in the wrong (but from your post, it doesn't seem that is the case). I would contact the ethics officer for the agency your work for and complain because this is not appropriate; I would also contact the union that represents federal employees. I assume you have a steward/union rep who works in your office/agency; email them and explain the situation.

Naming an official might be considered a political act because it would imply support for a potential opponent to this elected official, which is against the law. The ethics officer and/or union rep are the place to go. But if your advocacy work is making your supervisor uncomfortable and is legal and proper in the eyes of the law, then that's their problem not yours.

I wouldn't take this quietly as if they are silencing you then they are probably doing it to others.

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I think that somebody had been nagging your boss or the company's head about this and they, in turn, had to reprimand you. Things like these are not usually written in policy but instead handled on a case to case basis. Since you work in a public company, in an ideal scenario, nobody should've been bothered about whatever you post anywhere on your personal handles, but today's world is not so ideal.

Is it remotely OK for my supervisor's supervisor to prohibit me from making social media posts that name elected officials?

No, it's not OK at all, but one question you should ask yourself - Is it worth going all legal on this against a public company? Or you could do this:

  • Limit your post's audiences. Make your twitter profile non-public if you want to continue tweeting whatever comes to your mind.

  • Or better even, create a new account but anonymous to you, so that it can't be linked to you. Post whatever you want.

  • Meet with your manager and explain to him/her your position. Just see if he/she understands or not. It would even give you an idea if this company is worth working for or not.

  • Ask other colleagues if anyone has ever faced such a scenario, it would give you an idea if it has happened in the past or you are the first one. Then you may discuss it informally with your union.

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  • @ downvo_t_e_r Please comment why you did it? -_- – Zoinks Jan 17 at 6:59
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    "Yes, they can", citation needed. What is your legal basis for saying they can? – Mark Rotteveel Jan 17 at 10:02
  • @MarkRotteveel SO is not a place for giving legal advice and I wouldn't be giving one here, and I did clarify after that, that it is something that is more in "understanding" terms rather than something that is written in company's policy. – Zoinks Jan 17 at 10:06
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    I'm not talking about legal advice. You are claiming they can, which must mean that there is a legal basis for an employer being allowed to do so. I think they cannot (especially not as a government; doing so would violate the US first amendment), so you would need to back up your claim that they can. – Mark Rotteveel Jan 17 at 10:14
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    @Zoinks But you are the one giving legal advise here by claiming "Yes, they can" without providing any credible source for that claim. – Philipp Jan 17 at 11:58
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However, today I was reprimanded for a social media post I made on my personal twitter. The account is not associated with my work.

These sentences contradict each other. How would your work know what you posted if it is truly separated?

My advice, unfriend/unfollow anyone from your work on your account and make it private. That way you can voice your opinion and know who is viewing it.

To answer your question: yes, your employer could in fact fire you for your social media posts. It happens on a regular basis and it's usually a political statement that gets people fired. Companies tend to avoid political discussions only because it's very divided and puts them at odds with customers when their products do not relate to whatever it is that is being debated. In the USA your social media account is not considered a protected activity. Your employer could read it, not like what you post, and fire you.

It sounds to me like somehow you friend, or otherwise gave your social media account to your employer to view and read. If they found it by searching, you have a bit of plausible deniability since there's no way you can know what they are viewing especially if you share a common name. At this point you must either stop, or risk your political views for your job. I think at this point if you block or unfriend or make your profile private you still put yourself at risk since they know you are posting political things and now you're purposely trying to make them not see whatever it is they disagree with. Keep in mind they are not saying your political views are wrong, they're likely saying they just don't want to have any publically.

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    I don't think it's fair (or makes much sense) to call a social media account "work associated" simply because it can be traced back to a real person who works somewhere, if you happen to know the person and already know where they work. – Erik Jan 17 at 15:09
  • @Erik Yes agreed it's unfair but regardless the OP has been "found" somehow either by who he follows or whatnot. At this point he can't do anything about it since they know his account and know what he posts. – Dan Jan 17 at 15:10
  • That doesn't mean you should put "these sentences contradict each other" in your answer; it really doesn't. I agree with most of the rest of it, the way companies deal with this stuff is really ridiculous, but "not associated" doesn't mean "hidden from the eyes of", so the OPs statement is perfectly logical. – Erik Jan 17 at 15:13
  • @Erik He said he keeps it separate,but obviously, regardless of how it was found, it somehow links him with the company. So my statement stands true. – Dan Jan 17 at 15:21
  • @Erik I thought of a real life sample in the USA. Recently a woman cyclists flipped off the president's motorcade. At first her employers were okay with it since it was only in the news and couldn't be traced back to her employer. Later on she posted the picture on her social media and that's when they fired her although her profile did not have any links or association to her employer. She was just friends with someone who worked at the same employer. So yes, very unfair, but it's reality. – Dan Jan 17 at 17:46

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