Local governments grappling with pros, cons of social media

Municipalities are evaluating their social media practices as courts across the country deliberate its proper use by government officials.

Much discussion centers over whether these social media accounts are part of the public record that must be archived, and if “blocking” another account is a form of unconstitutional censorship. Last year a Virginia man sued the chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors for blocking him on Facebook, which he argued impeded his freedom of speech; the court agreed. In June, a federal judge ruled that President Donald Trump violated the constitutional rights of seven Twitter users when he blocked them from his official account. And just last month, the borough of Glen Rock, New Jersey, was ordered to pay $30,000 in legal fees because a request for a list of all blocked accounts was denied after a resident discovered he and his wife had been blocked on Facebook by a councilman.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, when it comes to getting the attention of politicians, most Americans believe social media plays an important role.

Indialantic Mayor Dave Berkman uses his Facebook page – Dave Berkman, Mayor of Indialantic – to share town news, critical information, information on events and other things he believes residents would find of interest.

He currently has 518 followers – and a recent post announcing a new grocery store in town gleaned 187 comments and was shared 150 times.

“Our attorney has recommended making copies of everything we post as we post for record-keeping; this is a bit of a pain but needs to be done,” Berkman said.

Berkman said he did once block a user from his Facebook page who became abusive and belligerent in posts – but says that is a rare event.

In August, Melbourne Beach Mayor Jim Simmons attended a meeting on ethics in Satellite Beach where the topic of social media was discussed. He shared what he learned during last month’s meeting of the Melbourne Beach Commission.

“If you’re making comments on Facebook or if you have a Facebook page or anything like that, any social media, you need to take a screen shot and send it to the town clerk,” Simmons said. “Because it’s not maintained anywhere, and it is a public record.”

But for Simmons, who does not have a Facebook page, other than verbal (phone or face-to-face), the only other way he communicates is through email, all of which is backed up on the town email server.

“I’ve never been, and don’t want to be, a user of social media anyway, but the issues with public records retention, Sunshine Law, etc. have reinforced my reluctance,” Simmons said. “I also don’t text personally or as mayor.”

Melbourne Beach Chief of Police Melanie Griswold started her agency’s Facebook page in 2012. “I have used it many times for road closures, race events, holiday parades, traffic laws, hurricanes, etc.” Griswold said.

She says the Facebook account – along with an email and texting communication tool called NIXLE – was her main tool for communication to residents during a hurricane.

“Even when our Wi-Fi was not working at the station, I would find a hotspot and use my phone to update homeowners on the damage to their homes and when the roads were clear,” Griswold said. “To us, it is an invaluable tool to reach our residents.”

She adds that over the six years the department has run the account, she has blocked about three people.

Indialantic Chief of Police Michael Casey limits the department’s social media to one Facebook account and a presence on a community site called Nextdoor.

He uses the site frequently during hurricane season to keep people informed of the latest developments. Other than that, posts typically consist of upcoming events, road closure notifications, or warnings of a local car break-in or burglary. The department has never blocked anyone from the sites – and monitors it occasionally.

Chief Casey strongly advises against reporting any criminal activity through social media or email. The best method to reach immediate help is still an old-fashioned phone call to police.

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