Employees at the state's psychiatric hospital in Goldsboro could face discipline if they say negative things about its staff or operations.
Cherry Hospital instituted a policy last month that said disruptive behavior would be punished, including "making degrading, demeaning, or belittling comments" about the hospital; criticizing staff or the quality of care; and "demeaning other staff, especially in public settings."
The hospital has landed in trouble in the past few years for patient abuse and neglect, with some of problems coming to light because workers spoke publicly.
Two years ago, the hospital's employment of a convicted child molester as its acting medical director came to public attention after a nurse told newspapers about it.
Last year, Cherry staff spoke about their frustrations after a patient death due to negligence that led the federal government to cut off insurance payments.
Hospital director Phillip Cook did not return telephone calls this week.
The code is vague about penalties for violations, saying only that discipline would be in line with state personnel policies and procedures. Penalties for poor job performance under state personnel rules range from warnings to firing.
Renee McCoy, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the policy is not meant to be a gag rule.
Employees are free to express their opinions, she said, but the department wants them to bring their ideas to people who can make changes.
"We want them to be open," McCoy said. "We want them to go through channels that would bring corrective action."
Some of the policy's wording will be changed to emphasize that it is focused on preventing behavior that disrupts hospital operations and patient care, McCoy said.
"We don't want employees to misinterpret the document to think that we are inhibiting their free speech," she said.
Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Gov. Beverly Perdue, said she could not comment directly on the Cherry policy because the governor had not seen it.
Perdue is committed to openness, Pearson said.
"The governor has made it clear to all her Cabinet secretaries that openness is a priority for her," Pearson said.