Social media and mobile technology have empowered civic activism on levels before unseen. Matters that once went on behind closed doors now emerge in vivid detail on YouTube, and activists, alternative media journalists, and everyday people use sites like Facebook and Twitter to express themselves on issues that would have in the past been ignored by mainstream media outlets. However, the increased transparency and civic engagement come at a cost to elected officials and bureaucrats who prefer doing business in smoky backrooms without debate or public comment.
According to Chattanooga Times Free Press, city officials in South Pittsburg, TN have been overwhelmed by negative comments on social media and consequently enacted a new policy, passed in a 4-1 vote at a December city commission meeting, banning all elected officials, city employees, city contractors, and anyone else doing official business with the city from making any negative comments on their private social media accounts about anyone or anything with any connection to city government. The policy falls short of criminalizing negative comments by citizens not directly affiliated with the government, but does force elected officials, contractors, city employees, and anyone else doing business of any kind with the city to sign a contract which stipulates that they be punished in the event that they violate the rule. The rule specifically states that affected parties are banned from making negative social media comments about the city itself, its elected officials, and its associates, which would seemingly include private contractors.
Commissioner Jeff Powers, a supporter of the policy, explained his frustrations with social media comments to Chattanooga Times Free Press, “It seems like every few meetings we’re having to address something that’s been on Facebook and created negative publicity.” He also said, addressing critics of the policy, “The first thing everyone wants to say is ‘I can’t post anything on Facebook.’ Well, you can. Just not [anything] that sheds a negative light on any person, entity, board or things of that nature. You can go ahead and post all you want.”
Commissioner Paul Don King, the lone board member who voted against the measure, said, “But what we [the board] are trying to say is that if I’m a city employee, you’re trying to tell me what I can say at night. I call that freedom of speech. I can’t understand that.”
Mayor Jane Dawkins said the measure was aimed at silencing what she called “out-and-out lies and untruths.” City Attorney Billy Gouger gave his opinion on the rule’s impact on freedom of speech, “What this policy tries to do is reconcile that right with other rights.”
Banning elected officials from making negative comments about the city or other elected officials seemingly transfers significant power to an administration backed by a majority, as dissenters, such as Paul Don King in this case, could in the future be accused of violating the rule while advocating policy positions on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. Also, city employees appear to now be banned from commenting on their consumer experiences with private businesses that incidentally have contracts with the city.