Councilmembers advised on social media Do’s and Dont’s for elected officials
Published : Tuesday, September 24, 2019 | 4:44 AM
Know your Facebook from your Instagram, and know the difference between your personal social media accounts, and your “official” social media pages. That was the message Monday from the City Attorney’s office to members of the City Council.
In a “mini-briefing,” Chief Assistant City Attorney Javan Rad told the Council about three recent court decisions in which the courts ruled against elected officials, including the President, regarding misuse of their social media accounts.
In one case Rad cited, the local sheriff’s office in Hunt County, a suburb of Dallas, Texas, posted on its Facebook page, “We welcome your ‘positive’ comments,” and said, “This is not a public forum.” When a resident, “Ms. Robinson,” posted a negative comment, the comment was deleted and the commenter was banned from commenting.
A Fifth Circuit court also ruled that the page was indeed a “public forum,” and that the commenter should have been able to proceed in litigation with claims against the Sheriff’s office.
In addition, the Fifth Circuit Court ruled that the plaintiff properly alleged that the Sheriff’s office has a policy of viewpoint discrimination on its Facebook page.
In another case, said Rad, Virginia elected official Phyllis J. Randall created a Facebook page one day before taking office as Loudon County Chair of Board of Supervisors, her third “official” page. When a local citizen, “Davison,” a frequent critic, commented on a post regarding a local town hall meeting, Randall deleted her own post and all the comments, and blocked Davison, only to restore him twelve hours later.
A District court eventually ruled that Randall was illegally acting under the color of her position, and on appeal, a Fourth Circuit court affirmed the decision. The court also ruled that she had violated Davison’s free speech, and that Randall’s Facebook page was a “public forum.”
Finally, the well-documented case of President Donald Trump, a compulsive Tweeter and long-time user. Trump converted his personal Twitter account into the account of the Office of the President after his election. In 2017, the President began to block some of his many critics from his Twitter account.
The District Court granted those users a Motion for Summary Judgment against the President, which the Second Circuit also affirmed.
The Second District Court ruled that the President’s Twitter account is a “public forum” and that in blocking the plaintiffs, he was discriminating against them. The court also ruled against Trump’s attorneys’ claim that “workarounds” would still allow users to view his tweets.
The President recently asked for yet another appeal in the case.
Following the presentation, Councilmember Kennedy, who said he had several Facebook pages and “other accounts, I’m told, that I know nothing about,” asked Rad for a set of written social media guidelines that the Council could use in the future.
Rad said that the office would work on that, but City Attorney Michelle Bagneris told Kennedy that “it’s a developing area of law, but we’ll do our best.”