Social media has been a place where you can freely (within limits) express your support and opposition for just about any cause, law, sports team or Presidential Candidate.

Social media allows conversations to happen between officials and taxpayers, but currently Newport has no social media best practices and a recent post has got some wondering if it’s right for their opinion to be deleted and their voice to be silenced.

The Example

At least five Newport residents, believe that their voice is being silenced and they are not being allowed to participate in a public conversation, on a public page, about a public policy.

  • “Demonizing the poor is always wrong. And I will oppose it”.
  • “Leave the panhandlers alone, we have bigger issues in our city.”
  • “Is it coincidence that this comes out just before the election?”
  • “This hasn’t successfully worked anywhere, we shouldn’t tie the city up in a legal battle”
  • “No, I don’t support this.”

Those are recent comments in reply to a proposed panhandling ordinance on Councilor John Florez’s Facebook page, reportedly all five of those comments and more have been deleted by the page admin. Some of those users have also reported that they have been banned from commenting on the page.

Councilor Florez is the only City Councilor that operates an active public Facebook Page.

 

The page, which is a public Facebook page, is run by John Florez has been used to talk about city issues, upcoming resolutions he’s going to introduce, campaign re-election posts, live video from meetings and beyond. The Page is not run by the City of Newport, nor does the City have any rules or regulations on any social media best practices.

The City of Newport has no rules or regulations on using the same Facebook Page for city business and for campaigning.

Before providing Councilor Florez with the messages we had been sent, we notified him that people were alerting us that comments were being deleted and asked him if had any comment.

“My policy is that anyone posting rude, derogatory, mean spirited statements would get deleted. I have two staff members that are primarily responsible. If the person that posted the statement that you just sited got deleted, then she shouldn’t have done so. There are quite a number of comments that disagree with my resolution including one (included a copy of one that opposed the ordinance) which is the very first one you see on the post,” Florez replied.

Florez quickly provided us with copies of 3 more comments from the post that opposed the ordinance.

“Thanks for the reply and for acknowledging that you are deleting comments. Where do the following (above 5) alleged comments that have been reportedly deleted fall within your guidelines of rude, derogatory, mean spirited? After being alerted that comments were being deleted we’ve been monitoring the post and have screenshots of all 5 of those comments (plus several more), now if you or they deleted them we’ll never know. But when contacted those 5 individuals claim they did not delete them,” I replied.

“I’ve just shown you multiple examples of people who have posted dissenting opinions and there are others. Furthermore, if myself or a member of my staff does choose to delete a comment that’s perfectly within our right to do so. I agree that some of these comments should not have been deleted such as “i don’t support this”. Please clarify “if they were”? It seems like you’re trying to play “gotcha”, Florez replied.

Some would argue that if the City of Newport had social media best practices or was responsible for this page, deleting comments could be a violation of First Amendment rights. A quick search will show you many Mayors, City Council members and other political members under heavy pressure due to deleting comments on public pages.

“If they were” – says these people who are claiming you deleted them, could of deleted them themselves,” I replied.

“Just curious, why would myself or anyone I authorize on my staff to delete comments be so concerning to you?? I just reviewed the many comments I left and there are a good amount that are not in agreement yet their post are still up,” Florez replied.

“Because people are claiming your not letting them express their opinion, that you are deleting their comments and banning them from participating in a public conversation. I’m following up on what people have claimed and what I’ve observed,” I replied.

While we agree with Councilor Florez that all rude, vulgar and threating posts should be deleted; we believe that residents should have the right to participate in a public conversation about a proposed ordinance.

City Needs To Start Taking Social Media Seriously

This situation is a great reminder that it’s time for the City of Newport to start taking social media seriously. The current or new City Council should work on establishing Social Media Best Practices for councilors, administration and other departments to use.

5 Quick Thoughts

1 – Should the City Council have their own Facebook Page to discuss policy and issues? Should all City Council members have a page? Should City Council members be able to use pages for City Business and for campaigning? Should the Facebook Pages be regulated/run by the city? Should public officials have their own blogs, Facebook pages or etc? Should they be commenting publicly on matters about which the council has not yet held public meetings? Doesn’t that suggest that they’ve made a decision in advance of hearing all the public input?

Recently Councilor Florez shared video of a public meeting on a discussion regarding a fire boat. Florez also recently “Facebook Lived” the City Councilor At-Large Forum, it came under scrutiny when Alliance For A Livable Newport (an unbiased source for information) promoted that people could/should watch the video live on one Counilor’s Facebook Page.

2 – Are Facebook pages maintained by councilmembers part of the public record? The media, watchdog organizations and some tax payers assert that they have a right to see all communications with a councilmember – whether to his or her official email OR to a private email. How do you capture this information for Facebook? Should you capture this information?

3- To have your voice or opinion heard or considered by City Council, you currently have to call, write or go to a meeting. Should the city consider collecting all comments on Facebook and providing them to City Councilors prior to discussing that issue? Otherwise if these comments aren’t considered valuable or worthy in changing an opinion on an issue, what’s the point of doing it all?

4 – Is it a violation of open meeting laws if a quorum of councilmembers comment on an issue on someone’s Facebook page or other social network? Open meeting laws does prohibit private meetings on public business outside of council chambers.

5 – What are we doing with City pages? While the City of Newport Facebook Page does share information about upcoming meetings, often they share similar photos or information that would make you think you’re looking at the Discover Newport social media channels. Why wouldn’t or couldn’t the City Facebook Live all of the candidate forums and public meetings on the City of Newport Facebook page?

If ever there was a time for someone to take over communications and for the City of Newport to step into the 21st century in regards to social media, the time is now.

Ryan M. Belmore

Ryan M. Belmore is the Owner & Publisher of What's Up Newp. Ryan is a member of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and serves on the Board of Directors for Fort Adams Trust and Lucy's Hearth. Send questions, tips, and story ideas to Ryan@whatsupnewp.com.