Public officials' social media accounts — are they business or pleasure?

Public officials' social media accounts — are they business or pleasure?
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The American Civil Liberties Union is legally challenging Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarHouse passes tribal land bills after votes were canceled following Trump tweet Trump tweets — and Dems pull two bills from floor Trump urges GOP to reject 'casino' bill backed by Warren MORE (R-Ariz.) for blocking a constituent’s access to the congressman’s Facebook page. This is not the first high-profile public official who is being sued for possibly violating constitutional free speech protections; President Donald Trump is also facing a lawsuit in which seven Twitter users say the president is infringing on their First Amendment rights by restricting their access to a government platform.

Ultimately these cases are going to have to come down to one question: are these social media accounts for business or pleasure?

Private or public accounts?

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In these cases, and in any others that might end up in court, that fundamental question that must be answered.

 

Here’s an analogy — if a public official holds a town hall meeting at a library, anyone can attend the event and say what they want as long as it is not hate speech or a threat of violence. The public official cannot have a bouncer at the door determining who enters or not.

Now here’s the difference; if that same public official holds a fundraising event for their campaign, that is private and not considered a public event anymore. The campaign can certainly decide who gets access or who is restricted.

This is where social media makes it tricky — the worlds of personal and public business don't seamlessly merge. In one post, the public official may be announcing an important policy decision, the next could be an announcement of a campaign rally, and the following a picture of the person spending the day with family.

The ACLU is asserting that if a public official uses that account for any public business, they have automatically made it a public forum. And just like the public meeting at a library, access cannot be restricted no matter how obnoxious or disagreeable the person is acting.

The defense

A spokesperson from Rep. Gosar’s office said, “The Congressman has very clear rules against hate speech, spamming, ad hominem attacks and profanity. Users who were blocked were in violation of our policies. We expect our policies to be upheld by the court.”

The congressman’s point is valid and brings up an excellent question — at what point does the public official have the right to block someone? Taking Gosar’s view, if someone insults his personal character or trolls him, that could be basis for denying access.

Again, that’s why these cases need to come down to defining which domains do these accounts belong to. If they are personal, then Gosar and others have every right to block whomever they want using any criteria they want. If these accounts are considered public, though, then the basis should become that of the First Amendment.

In the case of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE, the White House has claimed that @RealDonaldTrump is personal and not related to the government. The White House also has its own account, and it does post official business there.

However, there have been multiple instances when Donald Trump announced a policy decision through Twitter first, including his tweets that he would not allow transgender individuals to serve in the military and another where he instituted a “travel ban.”

Clarity will set a foundation

Technology will continue to improve, and we do not know how social media will be used by elected officials in the future. There are scenarios we cannot predict yet, and therefore, have no idea how important it is to have access to these social media accounts.

By laying down a baseline of what is private and public now, and by defining what conduct will be accepted in these online spaces, we could prevent what might become an even more consequential problem in the future.

What is needed on this issue, ultimately, is clarity. Everyone must have the same precedent to follow.

Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and in PR. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamChiara.