Social Media and Public Agencies: Legal Issues You Should Know About

Social media has changed the way we live by allowing users to communicate with one another in a much more convenient, easier, and faster way irrespective of their location. Individuals as well as private and public agencies use social media to reach their target audiences.

Public agencies must realize that social media usage can have several negative implications for their officials and agencies themselves. Legal issues represent one such set of negative implications.

So, what are some legal issues associated with using social media that public agency officials in Sonoma County should be aware of? Let’s take a look.

First Amendment Issues

Public agencies usually use social media to push information about an event or raise awareness about issues concerning the general public.

Readers typically have the option to respond to comments or content posted by public agencies. Users who are critical of an agency can vent out their frustrations on content posted to the agency’s official page. This could cause negative conversations to occur on the agency’s page or website.

To prevent negative conversations, agencies typically do not allow people from outside to post their content to their websites. When an agency closes its communications avenues to exclude content created by outsiders, it does not violate the First Amendment as the agency’s website is not a public forum.

If a public agency allows outside parties to post content to its website, official social media page, or blog, it can be argued that it created a designated public forum.

The First Amendment prohibits public agencies from censoring comments that indicate viewpoints different to their own on designated public forums, meaning they cannot delete content posted to their website or a social media account except for compelling reasons.

Moderating Comments: Moderators of a public agency’s social media page should allow negative comments to remain on it unless they are denigrating, out of context, and ugly.

Even if an agency creates a limited public forum for certain groups or on certain topics, it cannot randomly delete a post just because the user is critical of the agency or has a different perspective.

Public agencies can use tools offered by social media websites to decide how much conversation occurs on their official pages. For example, they can choose settings on Facebook to allow only agency officials to start a new topic on fan pages. However, there is no way to turn off comments on Facebook.

Personal Activities   

Public agency officials should not use social media during work hours. An occasional tweet or visiting one’s personal FB page once or twice a day may not be a violation of the law. The real problem arises when public agency officials are caught spending more time on social media during work hours and less time performing their duties.

Inappropriate social media content can land you in a legal soup. Having difficulty differentiating between appropriate and inappropriate content? Let Johnston & Associates Law help. Our lawyers have an in-depth understanding of public agency law in Sonoma County. To learn more, call (707) 545-6542.