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Navigating Today’s (Online) Town Square

November 6, 2019

While Facebook, Nextdoor, and other social platforms have replaced the Town Square as a place to air grievances, the First Amendment still guides the public’s right to speak out online.

Speaking at the Fall Conference of the Maryland Municipal League, Hilary Ruley, chief solicitor, Baltimore City Department of Law, shared tips on what public officials need to know when it comes to social media and the law:

A government Facebook page is considered a public forum, so managers must be aware of the legal do’s and don’ts, including whether it’s ever OK to remove a comment.

Ruley said to always take down copyrighted material that has been posted to your page, and if a post clearly comes from a bot, it should be deleted as well. Obscenities or threats should also come down.

Don’t “over-remove,” Ruley cautioned, but if a post is clearly off-topic it is OK to delete.

However, posts that contain “hateful” speech are a different story, as the First Amendment protects such commentary, and blocking of citizens is not advised.

Social media policies are important, but they should not attempt to control a government employee’s private pages or their use of social media, as that has been proven to backfire.

As for Google reviews, do not attempt to remove them either, she said.

In response to a question about cherry-picking positive social media posts to use in a promotional piece, she cautioned against that as well, as it doesn’t provide a balanced view of the public comments.

One technique to consider is maintaining comments on Facebook for a certain amount of time. Remove them every few weeks but be sure to maintain printed copies.

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