Starting in January, Minneapolis’ elected leaders and staff must start using official accounts to speak to the public about city business through sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The City Council unanimously passed a new social media policy Thursday that will set new restrictions for Minneapolis’ mayor, 13 City Council members and thousands of employees and volunteers — the first update to the city’s online rules in eight years. A new and significant change will be the creation of city-authorized accounts for those serving in elected positions, an effort to draw a clearer line between personal and government messaging.

The policy will also give the city’s communications staff more influence over how public officials use social media, prompting fresh concern the change will make for less candid online discourse.

“It’s going to make city government seem a little more impersonal,” said Council Member Steve Fletcher, speaking at a council committee meeting last week. Fletcher voted for the policy but said as a result he’ll probably post less frequently to Twitter. “I don’t totally love it,” he said, “but I support it.”

Others call the new rules a long-overdue update in an age when politicians increasingly use Twitter and social media as a first line of communicating directly to the public.

“There should be some clarity with regards to what I say as a councilman representing the city of Minneapolis and what I say as an individual,” said ordinance sponsor Abdi Warsame.

Right now, Warsame said, “I think there’s a gray area that can cause problems.”

Between now and January, city staff will work out the details and specific language. But a presentation to the city’s enterprise committee last week and a draft overview obtained by the Star Tribune give insight into what it will look like.

Communications staff will set best practices for how elected officials use social media. They will also retain access to the city-approved accounts and archive posts for the public record. The accounts will stay with the office after an election, rather than leaving with an individual. And elected officials will be prohibited from blocking people on their official accounts.

What’s unclear is how — or if — the policy will stop elected officials from skirting these rules through use of their “personal” accounts.

The blurry line between a politician’s personal and professional social media accounts has emerged as a national issue over the past year. Earlier in July, an appeals court affirmed a ruling that President Donald Trump was violating the Constitution by blocking his critics on what Trump called his personal Twitter account. “The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees,” a panel of judges wrote.

City Council Member Alondra Cano blocked journalists from her Twitter account last year, including those from the Star Tribune, following critical coverage of her attendance record. Cano also justified the move by labeling her account “personal,” even though she continued to use it to discuss city and political business.

In an e-mail exchange, Cano said she did not plan to unblock anyone under the new rules, saying “personal or partisan social media accounts wouldn’t fall under the purview.”

The new policy will also impact city employees, a term defined broadly as more than 4,000 people who perform work for the city — from policy aides to volunteers and election judges.

The rules will prohibit them from using their personal social media accounts for “city business, communications or to circumvent city processes, such as releasing data,” according to an overview of the policy.

Greta Bergstrom, head of communications for Minneapolis, said the policy won’t stifle the First Amendment rights of these employees.

“I really don’t think the vast majority of city employees — seasonal, part-time, full-time, whatnot — are going to experience much change,” she said.

City employees can post about their opinions as long as it doesn’t conflict with city business, she said.

A social media officer from the communications staff will investigate potential violations on a complaint basis.

In the case of elected officials, complaints can be adjudicated through the city’s Ethical Practices Board, said Bergstrom.

 

 

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstate the date the policy was approved.