Montana law hasn’t kept up with advances in technology, including social media usage by government officials. Social media conduct is significantly more complicated for a governmental body than for the public. Determining the line between appropriate use of a channel or a proper discussion of a matter of public concern is difficult to navigate.
At a recent Kalispell City Council meeting, legal staff advised the council that usage of social media by elected officials can be a slippery slope. Several city council members use Facebook as a means to communicate with the public. The discussion included a councilman’s risk giving the public a false impression of council activities that other councilmen and women cannot correct. So, when a councilman uses Facebook to “inform” the public that he is responsible for a proposal when, in fact, a proposal for an ordinance is developed by city staff, amended by the council, and voted on by nine elected officials, this point cannot be debated on Facebook. Likewise, when a council member suggests the mayor acts heavy-handed when he does not allow discussion on a motion to table or a motion to lift an agenda item from the table, council is prevented from informing the public that, in fact, the mayor was following Roberts Rules of Order not stymying discussion.
While elected officials still retain the right of free speech, legal parameters exist to ensure all public “hear the speech” of elected officials. This is why Kalispell videotapes its public meetings and loads them to a public website: to provide greater public access to council meetings. It is impossible for those that don’t use Facebook to access a councilman’s “free speech” on a private company’s social media site. Thus, choosing Facebook to exercise a councilman’s “free speech” effectively limits the public’s ability to access the same.
Despite these issues, Councilman Ryan Hunter defended his Facebook use to deliver his “free speech.” When pressed about the slippery slope he may be creating, Councilman Hunter responded: “Because I have to run for re-election.” This statement speaks volumes rendering Mr. Hunter’s cries of altruistic motivation to inform and “free speech” concerns hollow. By excluding constituents who don’t use a private social media site from his commentary, placing false council information on a private company’s platform, and seeking personal praise for the work performed by staff and other council members, Mr. Hunter reveals himself. Self-service is the enemy of public service. City councilors wield essentially no power individually, and to seek individual recognition for city work is the height of hubris. Ironically, Mr. Hunter’s justification is the precise reason why Montana adopted robust open meetings laws: to shine a light on those elected officials who place self-interest above public service. Hopefully, the residents of Kalispell respond accordingly.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.
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