Social Media and the Local Government

By: Andrew McRoberts, Editor. This was posted Friday, September 18th, 2009

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Recently, there was discussion among LGA attorneys about social media and local government. Some reasonable questions were raised. Among them: Do we have authority to do this? What legal exposure are we creating? Is there a public forum being created?

Much like newsletters, websites, cable programming, notices in the newspaper, and posted signs, the so-called “social media” are additional means to communicate with the public. Many folks in the general public no longer read the newspaper; fewer check the local government website. A locality may therefore desire to follow the public to Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else it can communicate with them in places and at times that work effectively. For that reason, I see no lack of authority to communicate public information to the citizens. One can even argue that localities have an obligation to share information in ways that actually reach the public, and to receive information from the public in ways that are convenient to their citizens.

Being local government attorneys, we have the responsibility to be wary and to review what our clients are doing in order to reduce liability and avoid unintended consequences. And, as with more traditional means of communication, some basic common sense is needed.

I have previously posted ways that Twitter, the micro-blogging service, can be useful to local government attorneys. Many local governments use Twitter to share information quickly and in real time, such as road closings, utility work, accidents, weather alerts and school closings. Other local government agencies use Twitter to share information with citizens such as economic development announcements, parks and recreation events and meeting notices. I suspect you will see more and more of this.

Some local government attorneys are concerned with Facebook or Twitter terms of use. Some general terms may be objectionable, such as indemnification. It appears that this can be reasonably addressed by engaging the companies and amending the basic terms. For example, at least one locality, the City of Virginia Beach, has been successful in negotiating the basic terms in a way that addressed reasonable local government legal concerns such as lack of authority to indemnify.

If accepting and posting public comments on line via social media, a locality should understand that it is creating a public forum, and the local government attorney can help in crafting a policy and reasonable limitations that do not run afoul of the First Amendment.

To that end, I am impressed by Virginia Beach’s efforts in social media. I recently received (via Twitter) the most recent “rules of the road” for Virginia Beach’s Facebook page, which can be found at http://www.facebook.com/CityofVaBeach. It appears that Virginia Beach has struck the right balance between addressing important legal issues and making a new media tool available for the government to be open to the public. Mark, Rod and others in the Virginia Beach City Attorneys Office are to be commended.

For your convenience, I have copied and pasted Virginia Beach’s Facebook “terms of use” below:

Purpose of City of Virginia Beach Page:

• To provide local citizens with information about government programs and services.
• To provide a platform for local citizens to share viewpoints and engage in dialogue with one another.

Criteria for Posting Information on City of Virginia Beach Page:

Fans of the City of Virginia Beach are encouraged to post information about issues affecting the city’s residents. We encourage discussion and varying viewpoints. However, the City of Virginia Beach Page will not feature:
• Nudity/pornography, adult and/or hate language, tobacco, alcohol or similar information
• Establishments where the distribution or sale of alcoholic beverages is a primary business function.
• Activities restricted to adults.
• Tobacco products.
• Firearms or other weapons.
• Hostility or violence.
• Attacks on ethnic, racial or religious groups.
• Illegal discrimination against any group.
• Illegal or inappropriate use of firearms or drugs, or any illegal activity.
• Sexual, obscene or indecent, or explicit messages
• Sexual overtone or innuendo.
• Products or services with sexual overtones such as massage parlors, escort services, or establishments featuring for show or sale X-rated or pornographic movies, materials or performances.
• False, misleading or deceptive sponsorships/advertisements.
• Language or information that is obscene, foul, vulgar, scurrilous or scatological.
• Information harmful to children or is of a nature to frighten children, either emotionally or physically.
• Cruelty to animals.
• Online casino gaming, gambling or betting.
• Information affiliated with or promoting political campaigns.
• Programs and events not officially sponsored by the City of Virginia Beach.
• Solicitations for donations, except for official City-sponsored activities.
• Endorsements of specific brand name products or services for advertising or marketing purposes.

As more and more citizens gravitate to new forms of media, and as our media sources themselves transform to free, speedy, electronic delivery, it is important for local governments to be aware of these trends and be prepared to address them.

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Comments:

  • Andrew,

    I came across your blog while searching for any Virginia state laws / policy regarding use of social media state-wide. I have not been able to find any yet. Are you aware of any?

    Thanks,
    Sam

    Posted by: Sam Allgood | March 11th, 2011 at 10:27 am
     

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