ABBEVILLE — A civil liberties organization filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of an Abbeville police sergeant that seeks to invalidate a policy forbidding Abbeville police officers from using social media to post negative comments about the Police Department, city leaders, city employees and the residents of Abbeville.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said Wednesday the ACLU filed the suit on behalf of Abbeville Police Sgt. Colt Landry. Landry is suing Abbeville Mayor Mark Piazza and Police Chief Tony Hardy to stop the policy.
Piazza and Hardy were unavailable for comment late Wednesday afternoon.
“Sgt. Landry’s loss of First Amendment freedoms unquestionably constitutes irreparable harm,” ACLU attorney Candice Sirmon wrote in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Lafayette.
To read the lawsuit, log onto https://www.laaclu.org/resources/2014/092414LandryAbbeville.pdf.
Esman said public employees have free speech rights like everybody else.
“Sgt. Landry, like the rest of us, has the right to say what he wants on his private Facebook page, maintained on his own time,” Esman said in a statement. “He shouldn’t have to risk his job for stating his opinion about his community.”
Landry, who has been an Abbeville police officer for 12 years, has a Facebook page on which he comments, posts photos and engages in Internet conversations. But his comments, if they’re deemed a negative assessment of city leaders or residents, violate the policy known as General Order 222, which became effective Aug. 21, 2013.
“General Order 222 does not adequately define what is prohibited, which makes it impossible for anyone to know what they may or may not say,” Esman said.
Portions of General Order 222 prohibit “liking” comments or photographs on Facebook that “will give a negative view” of the city and its police force. It also forbids sharing photographs that might cast Abbeville’s leaders in a bad light, according to the policy, which was printed in the lawsuit.
Most of the social media policy is undefinable and depends on a point of view, Esman said.
For instance, she said, the policy prohibits “insulting, profane or derogatory messages about the city of Abbeville, the Abbeville Police Department, its officials, employees or citizens,” but it does not define the language that crosses into what is insulting, profane or derogatory.
“It’s not clear whether Sgt. Landry or anyone else could post a photograph of a dilapidated building, which could be construed as ‘derogatory.’ Nor is it clear whether someone could post a comment disagreeing with a public official’s public position on an issue,” Esman said.
Sirmon, the ACLU attorney, said that although the language in General Order 222 uses words associated with Facebook and also mentions Twitter and Instagram, commenting on social media sites not mentioned in the policy could get an Abbeville police officer in trouble. Sirmon said sites not mentioned in the policy include: Yelp, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, Goodreads, Tumblr, Foursquare, Flickr, Vine and MySpace.
Sirmon said officers commenting on news organizations’ websites also could get them disciplined.
Esman said that without clear rules and guidance, employees in the Abbeville Police Department are “effectively prevented from using social media altogether.”