Isn’t it frustrating when you work hard to craft valuable social media content only to have it flooded with critical negative comments about the post or your agency? Just delete the comment or entire post so it doesn’t devalue your reputation.
No big deal, right? Wrong!
Not only is deleting posts or negative comments by elected officials possibly infringing on the citizens freedom of speech, in some states, it can also be be illegal if it doesn’t clearly violate social media policy. Besides, what do you do when they see you’ve deleted their comment and they file an open records request for the complete context of the post? You provide it, right? Well, you should; and, legally you must.
Last evening a Facebook post, drafted by Board of Education member Edward Burroughs III exposing unreasonable pay increase of Mr. Christian Rhodes totaling more than $210,000 was mysterious deleted after members of the public started posting critical comments on the issue. Mr. Rhodes is the Chief of Staff for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) and reports directly to Dr. Monica Goldson (the interim CEO). He has engaged in questionable conduct in the past before resuming the current role and was part of the team which received thousands of dollars in pay increases by former CEO Dr. Kevin Maxwell earlier this year.
One concerned user on direct message stated, “Something is going on just like him dropping the charges against Eubanks. I think Monica is behind it.” Mr. Burroughs later posted another message praising Monica Goldson by stating the following:
“Update: I just got off the phone with the interim CEO. For months we’ve talked about the importance of making sure that our teachers and support staff receive pay increases. Not just the executives ( upper marlboro elites) . I’m going to do everything I can to support her in doing just that. She and I will not agree on everything- but we will are unified and when I tell you things have gotten so much better- I mean it. My most important meeting with her was last week regarding alternative schools. The last CEO would not return an email about these students. She was very thoughtful and concerned about our students who are expelled, habitually truant, or who’ve had adverse contact with the criminal justice system. Major positive changes are coming for these students. I will continue to keep you informed about what’s happening.”
Many elected officials have traditionally used town halls, letters and email correspondence to engage with their constituents. In the age of social media, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as key platforms for political dialogue. Lawmakers increasingly rely on these tools to inform the public of their positions, announce policy changes and gauge constituent opinion. With this in mind, deleting important posts, blocking citizens from these forums is akin to denying them access to their representatives.
Many organizations, including The Washington Post, curate reader comments, but if they are not part of the government, they do not have the same responsibility to communicate with constituents. Mr. Edward Burroughs’ Facebook page is linked to his office and he gets assistance from the Board employees with many issues including emails and voicemails. It is both constitutionally and ethically held to a different standard.
The legal framework surrounding free speech rights on online forums is still developing, and with time government officials may have real concerns about how to preserve constructive dialogue on their pages. Some difficult questions may present themselves.
In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, government entities are legally required to make public records available to citizens for viewing and copying at their request. Most people know this as an open records request. But, in order for agencies and other organizations working with the government to provide records for the requested information, they must preserve all of their records — physical and digital — so they can be accessed any time.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted in 1967, gives citizens access to public information. It’s often described as “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” FOIA applies to federal agencies, but most states have their own version of an open records act which typically charge agencies and organizations doing business with government to preserve digital content.
That means emails, texts, and social media must be archived.
But, what is considered public and what isn’t? Let’s take a look.
Is Digital Content Considered “Public Record”?
Public record, according to the Maryland Open Records Act, includes all documents, letters, papers, maps, books, tapes, pictures, data, data fields, and computer-based or computer-generated information. That includes content received or sent by a public agency or by a private person or private organization working with the government.
So, yes, digital content is considered public record.
Once someone submits an open records request, the agency must supply the record within 3 days unless it is legally determined confidential.
Records Not Considered Public
Agencies and businesses working with the government aren’t required to prepare reports or summaries for the open records request, nor are they required to take time away from their daily responsibilities to go above and beyond to prepare the requested records. And some records are not considered public. Types of records that aren’t public, include:
- Law enforcement
- Information about regulatory agencies in pending criminal investigations
- Federal government cases specifically required to be confidential
- Confidential evaluations and investigations related to the hiring of public officials or public employees
- Personal information like social security numbers, mother’s birth name, insurance and medical information, financial data, and bank account and credit card information
Keep in mind, this list is not exhaustive and there are other types of information not required to be open to the general public. Additionally, most states have their own variation of an open records act that could vary slightly from this list.
Instead of deleting posts or comments all together that critique policy positions and those of the executives involved in shenanigans in PGCPS, Mr. Burroughs should allow them online — and, if he disagrees with them, respond and make his case for why the status quo is not the answer and vice versa! He should also invite some of these questionable characters to highlight their side of the issue or schedule hearings himself since he is part of the leadership team as a Board member.
Deleting Facebook posts after an official engaged in unjust enrichment calls to complain, or even after the public has started engaging in social media condemning an illegal scheme should not be concealed. It’s even worse to withdraw a suit after making serious allegations against certain individuals after many months in the media, highlighting corruption fiasco in the county schools. Running away from problems as part of cover ups as an elected official is not the answer!