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The Durham City Council wants to establish rules for officials' social media use

Mind Your Manners

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The Durham City Council approved a policy on Monday directing elected and appointed officials on how to use social media.

Three council members voted against the new policy—Charlie Reece, Jillian Johnson, and Steve Schewel—after the director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition raised concerns that some of its provisions could violate the First Amendment. Ultimately, the version that passed Monday—the city's first-ever social media policy for elected and appointed officials—omitted a section that posed the clearest free speech problems, but dissenters still had qualms about the policy.

The policy has two goals: to ensure posts by officials are easily archived and retrievable and to establish guidelines on how officials should use personal and professional accounts. The policy "strongly encourages" public officials to have both. (Reece and Johnson, the council's most prolific social media users, already do.)

The city began considering the policy before the anti-white-supremacist rally downtown last month. Reports of a KKK appearance spread in part via Johnson's Twitter, prompting Mayor Bill Bell to call for elected officials "to be more responsible." After the rally, the city added a provision saying officials should be "honest and accurate when posting information."

In an email to the council, Open Government Coalition director Jonathan Jones said the policy errs in saying posts may be considered public records. He also said the policy was unclear on record retention, leaves out text messages, and overly regulates speech.

"In the limitations on elected and appointed officials' speech, I believe there is too heavy-handed of an approach that seems to direct council members as well as other appointed officials as to what they can and cannot say about city business," he wrote. "Because the only recourse in your policy is censure, and you can ostensibly censure each other for your speech until the cows come home because that is part of the political process, it is not a First Amendment violation per se. But it leaves the impression that council members (and other elected officials) are more limited in what they can say than they are."

Initially, Reece proposed sending the draft back to the council's procedure committee, but Bell suggested some version be approved so that "nobody goes off the reservation." After it became clear that Bell had a majority, members set about suggesting revisions.

The policy was passed with the caveat that it be reviewed by the city manager and the city attorney's offices, and be revisited during the council's work session on Thursday.

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