ACLU asks mayor to review employees’ free-speech rights

Friday, February 13, 1998

The ACLU sent a letter recently to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, asking him to examine the policies of all city departments with respect to limiting public employees' contact with the media.

The latest action by the civil-liberties group comes in the wake of public rancor over a Muni Communications Department policy. Last month, Muni clarified its policy after the ACLU and others criticized a Dec. 30 memo by department chief Emilio Cruz, informing employees they could not speak to the media unless they obtained prior approval.

Muni softened its earlier stance, saying public employees must seek prior approval only for comments made as official representatives, not as individuals.

Now, the ACLU has set its sights on making sure other city departments clarify their positions with respect to public-employee contact with the media.

The letter, written by attorney Alan Schlosser, asks the mayor “to issue a directive to all city departments which makes it clear that public employees who are not speaking on behalf of the city may discuss public affairs with the media as freely as all other citizens, and which directs that the policies of all city agencies be reviewed and revised (if necessary) to reflect the proper constitutional balance.”

According to prominent First Amendment attorney Douglas Mirell, who practices law in Los Angeles, “the ordinary rule is that everyone, including public employees, has the right to speak their mind on any issue of consequence that they desire.

“The only time you can restrict the speech of a public employee is when that employee is speaking on behalf of her or his employer,” Mirell told the First Amendment Center.

“Short of that, any restriction on contact with anyone, including the media, would be unconstitutional. As a matter of public policy, we want public employees to speak out about malfeasance in their departments. That is why there are whistleblower protection statutes on the books.”

P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for the mayor's office, told the FAC: “Frankly, this is really a non-issue. The ACLU has no firsthand knowledge of anyone having their free-speech rights curtailed. There is no evidence of a widespread free-speech problem in city departments.”

Johnston noted that Brown is currently in Asia but will respond to the letter when he returns.