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Walsh tries to clarify USOC rule on bid talk

Mayor Martin Walsh shook hands following a news conference on Jan. 9 about Boston’s selection as the US choice for the 2024 Olympics.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Mayor Martin J. Walsh sought Thursday to calm municipal employees worried about an agreement he signed that forbids them from criticizing the city’s bid for the 2024 Olympics.

In an e-mail sent to the city’s approximately 18,000 workers, Walsh reiterated his contention that the ban on criticism he signed with the United States Olympic Committee is “boilerplate language that all cities have historically signed.”

Still, he said, it should not discourage city workers from voicing their opinions on the Olympics.

“I want you to hear from me directly, I will not — and will never — limit your right to free speech,” Walsh wrote in the e-mail.


“All employees are welcome to share their opinions as we move forward and I hope that you will help the city of Boston in shaping its Olympic proposal,” he wrote. “I want to emphasize that no employees will face any consequences for contributing their thoughts — positive or negative — and I look forward to hearing from all of you.”

The USOC on Thursday released a letter also asserting that the agreement it signed with the city was not intended to restrict employees from voicing their personal views on the Olympics.

The letter said that the restriction on criticism applies only to “employees and representatives in the performance of their duties in connection with the Boston bid.”

“None of the USOC, the Boston 2024 partnership, or the City of Boston have any intention under these agreements to restrict the personal rights of expression of any of their employees,” said the letter, signed by Christopher McCleary, general counsel of the USOC.

Kelly Shay — an executive board member of SEIU Local 888, which represents Department of Neighborhood Development workers, police dispatchers, and other city employees — said the mayor’s e-mail was reassuring.

“I think the clarifying letter really asking for feedback was an important step,” she said.


Shay said she would personally feel comfortable speaking out about the Olympics but could see how other city workers might be worried. “He may need to do more,” she said.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, flatly dismissed the notion that the order Walsh signed would chill free speech.

“I haven’t paid any attention to it, and I don’t think our members are worried,” he said. “I think it’s a story about nothing.”

The order, which the Globe obtained through a public records request on Wednesday, was disclosed at an awkward time, as backers of Boston’s Olympic bid began a concerted effort to dispel criticism that they have crimped debate and been overly secretive about their plans.

On Wednesday, Boston 2024, the private group promoting the city’s bid, held the first of nine planned community meetings on the Olympics, and released most of its proposal online. Walsh has said the community meetings are designed to allow the public, including city workers, to debate the merits and drawbacks of hosting the Games.

However, the “joinder agreement” Walsh signed prohibits city “employees, officers, and representatives” from making any written or oral statements that “reflect unfavorably upon, denigrate or disparage, or are detrimental to the reputation” of the International Olympic Committee, the USOC, or the Olympics. Instead, city workers “shall each promote” the city’s bid “in a positive manner,” the agreement states.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has said the document blatantly violates city employees’ First Amendment right to free speech, and has called on Walsh to correct it immediately so that teachers, custodians, and other city workers can speak out without fear of reprisal from City Hall.


Sarah Wunsch, an ACLU attorney, has said the law clearly allows public employees, as citizens, to speak out on matters of public concern, unless doing so would be so disruptive that it would make it difficult for the government to run.

Walsh, however, has not said if he plans to change the agreement.

“As stated yesterday, Mayor Walsh is not looking to limit the free speech of his employees and, as residents of Boston, he fully supports them participating in the community process,” his spokeswoman, Laura Oggieri, said in a statement Thursday. “The mayor wants to ensure that all city employees are encouraged to share their opinions on the Olympics without worrying about consequences of any kind.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.