Chalk one up for clearer communication between citizens and government.
Last week the Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a new social media policy that gives clearer guidance about the use of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Once the rules go into effect Jan. 1, the public should better understand when city employees or officials are addressing them professionally, personally or politically.
Under the updated policy, city communications staff will have more influence over social media use; officials and employees will be required to use monitored city accounts in their work. City managers and workers may have personal accounts, but may not use them to conduct city business. Violations could result in sanctions.
The new policy also prohibits blocking the public from official city sites. That’s an important change that should matter to all who value fair, open access to government. The provision wisely mirrors a recent federal appeals court ruling about President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter. The ruling said Trump’s frequent tweets were official in nature, and therefore it is unconstitutional for him to block critical comments. from his “personal” Twitter account.
“Government,’’ the court said, “is not permitted to ‘amplify’ favored speech by banning or burdening viewpoints with which it disagrees.”
Of course, the judicial decision and the Minneapolis ordinance allow for some exceptions: threatening, menacing and other inappropriate posts may be taken down or blocked. But a constituent may not be banned from an official city site simply for disagreeing with a city official or action.
Another important provision involves archiving posts and interactions. Posts and exchanges will be stored, so if it’s necessary to refer back to particular posts, they’ll be available. Currently, exchanges can be deleted.
The new regulations will help clarify when elected officials are operating on social media in their official capacities rather than as private citizens. There is continuing concern that some officials might sidestep the city site and use personal platforms for business. But complaints of violations will be investigated, and handled through the city’s Ethical Practices Board, said Greta Bergstrom, head of communications for Minneapolis.
She added that the policy won’t stifle the First Amendment rights of city employees. They will continue to be able to express their opinions on personal sites. And they can do so on the city sites as long as they do not conflict with city business.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued previously, social media platforms are now integral to government and political communications with the public. Government employees and officials should have clear, consistent guidelines that differentiate between personal and professional online tools.
Minneapolis certainly isn’t the only government entity that has struggled with determining the best way to use social media platforms for official business. Now the city’s updated rules can be a model for other cities and local units of government that haven’t yet developed formal policies.