City officials in the small town of South Pittsburg, Tenn. recently drew a lot of criticism by voting in favor of an “all inclusive” social networking policy. The reason for the policy: City officials claim that their work has been hampered by criticism and lies on social media. Click here to read the story.
The new online policy doesn’t just apply to elected officials, appointed board members and employees, but it also applies to volunteers, vendors, contractors and anyone, in fact, who is associated with the town in an official capacity. Seeing that the town’s population is barely 3,000, that may well include just about everyone who lives there and who has a social media account.
The policy says those persons can't post anything negative about the city, its employees or other associates. Anyone who violates the policy can be reprimanded.
Critics say the policy violates their First Amendment rights, but supporters argue that it’s designed to stop people from making personal attacks or showing others in a negative light.
The policy doesn’t appear to be limited to the city’s own social media sites, but to any and all sites – even personal Facebook, Twitter, or other online forums.
I don’t know about you, but this policy smells a lot like prior restraint, which the Supreme Court frowns upon. For those unfamiliar with the concept it basically says that the government cannot restrict speech or other forms of expression prior to publication.
Even the city’s lone dissenter, Commissioner Paul Don King, understands what prior restraint means. He said: “But what we [the board] are trying to say is that if I'm a city employee, you're trying to tell me what I can say at night. I call that freedom of speech. I can't understand that."
What are they going to do next, tell journalists they can’t publish negative stories about what goes on at town hall meetings?
There is no doubt that governments and companies need social media policies, but both have a fine line to walk – one between protecting themselves and protecting the First Amendment rights of those who work for them. While doing research, I came upon this online database of social media policies – from Abbott to Yahoo.
While the hope is that common sense will prevail, that’s not always the case. That’s usually when the hammer falls.
But in the case of South Pittsburg, Tenn., city officials may have taken it a step too far. Only time will tell. What do you think? Just how far is too far when it comes to social media and prior restraint?
Susan R. Miller is founder of Garton-Miller Media, a full-service, South Florida-based public relations firm. Susan is a former journalist with more than 30 years of experience. She has written for local, state and national publications. Her clients include attorneys, non-profit organizations and healthcare professionals.
Garton-Miller Media is a full-service, South Florida-based public relations firm. Founder Susan R. Miller has 30 years of experience as a writer, journalist and PR professional.