Citizens should always be able to have their say when it comes to what their government is doing. That doesn’t necessarily mean they get to do so on every available platform.
Chester County recently approved a new social media policy, which was needed with meetings being broadcast on Facebook. For a while, people were able to comment on meetings as they were happening on the popular social media site. That policy will be discontinued, though, with comments simply being turned off.
That immediately brings up the question of whether or not doing so restricts the free speech rights of citizens. The answer, from court opinions and decisions we have read, is “no.” You can still comment on meetings, government actions and officials out loud and on your own social media pages and Chester County Council is not attempting to punish anyone for their negative comments. You could share the meetings to your own page and comment at will if you so desire. There has just been a decision from the top not to allow live comments during meetings.
Essentially, government bodies have to make one of two decisions…that being to allow comments or not allow them. Where they can get into trouble is when someone picks and chooses what comments are allowed and which are not. At that point, they would veer into Constitutional infringement on top of projecting the horrid optics of allowing some folks to publicly air opinions, but not others. The worst move of all is to edit public comments, because then you open yourself up to accusations that you are changing the meaning, intent and context of someone’s public posts, which can lead to lawsuits.
We actually got a taste of this sort of decision a decade or so ago. Before Social media was so prevalent, the place a lot of people went to make their opinions known was in the comment sections of newspaper websites. When particularly controversial issues were afoot, it was almost a full-time job for us to police comments. We are in the free speech business, but we aren’t Congress (or even a council) and people weren’t legally entitled to give their opinions on our website, particularly when they were vulgar or represented slander against others. We were told at the time by an attorney, though, to allow comments and delete ones that could get us sued or don’t allow them at all but don’t ever change or edit them. So we opted to let them continue, we gave a lot of leeway but when someone saw fit to accuse someone else of cheating on their spouse or stealing money, we deleted it.
The question as it pertains to Chester County, though, isn’t can they turn comments off (they can), it is whether they should.
We always err on the side of openness and an enabled public voice in person or online.
The way we see it, government IS the people it represents. A council is citizens, representing citizens, spending the tax dollars of citizens and acting on behalf of citizens.
We understand the decision and appreciate the lengths the county goes to in terms of getting meetings to the public (there are discussions of adding meetings to YouTube on top of Facebook broadcasts).
We also know times have changed, people often can’t attend meetings in person and that posting online is increasingly the means by which people have their say.