City council members: Social media policy needed

November 2, 2013 10:07:46 PM

Sarah Fowler - sfowler@cdispatch.com

 

A year after two Columbus firefighters and a police officer were suspended for "liking" a Facebook post, the city does not have a social media policy in place. 

 

A policy has been drafted but not adopted by councilmen, according to city officials. 

 

Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box each said approving the policy "dropped through the cracks." However, the two councilmen agreed that after a recent Facebook incident involving Municipal Court Judge Nicole Clinkscales, a policy will likely be voted on as soon as possible. 

 

"I don't know how it dropped through the cracks but I think we'll definitely get a written policy out of this," Box said Friday afternoon. 

 

Karriem echoed Box's sentiments, saying, "I don't think it's, as far as the policy, it's anything sinister. I just think it hasn't made it back before the council to be adopted but I'm sure it will be coming before the council real soon." 

 

The question of a social media policy for city employees began in September 2012 when a Columbus Fire and Rescue firefighter made a disparaging comment on his Facebook page about a mother whose child was struck by a car. The fireman later resigned. Two firefighters and one police officer who "liked" the post were suspended for 30 days without pay, a suspension recommended by their superiors. The council voted 3-3 regarding the suspensions. Mayor Robert Smith cast the tie-breaking vote. 

 

The social media policy issue was brought up again last week when Clinkscales took to her Facebook page and made a reference to "'tom'foolery" while mentioning Aubra Turner, a member of the Columbus Municipal School District board, by name. 

 

While no item involving the judge has been added to the city council's Tuesday night agenda, Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said without a policy in place, the council has no choice but to follow precedent when voting on incidents involving social media. 

 

Referencing last September's vote, Gavin said, "That set a precedent that we need to follow. We don't need to waiver from that. The rules apply to everyone. You can't pick and choose who you want those to apply to. I realize all situations are different but at the same point at time, if you're going to be fair and just, they've got to apply to everyone." 

 

Gavin added that he feels city employees should exercise caution when using social media. 

 

"I think social media is fine for some people, I think some people abuse it. I do think people in the public eye, people that represent the city, have an obligation not only to the city itself but to the people that they represent. Police, fireman, the city council, the mayor, judges, school board --they represent the city. We have to be responsible. We have to take that seriously. I think responsibility goes along with that job." 

 

If people use social media, they have to be prepared for any potential backlash, he said. 

 

"Everything that you do is criticized," Gavin said. "People have to be very aware of that. You have to be careful what you put on Facebook. That's just responsibility and people have to be responsible for their own actions. If they're willing to (use social media) they have to accept the consequences that go along with it." 

 

While Councilman Box said he does not know if Clinkscales will face disciplinary action, he feels the judge should not have attacked Turner via social media. Clinkscales, in her post two weeks ago, wrote, "I am SO over Board Member Turner!" 

 

"I think she was wrong," Box said. "I do not think she should have spoken out like that against a school board member who was only voting her convictions. That was all Mrs. Turner did. She was only voting her conviction which is the same thing we do up there everyday. Sometimes we're right, sometimes we're wrong, but we're voting our convictions. It just didn't agree with what Mrs. Clinkscales thought she (Turner) ought to do so she hammered her." 

 

Regardless of whether Clinkscales' actions are brought before the council, Karriem said the city desperately needs a social media policy. 

 

"I think it's greatly needed," Karriem said. "I think we're living in some different times and social media is a new frontier but I think that all municipalities should have some type of policy when it comes to social media and how they deem it fits into their personal policy." 

 

Karriem said with a policy in place, the council is not put in a position of wondering what is and is not protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. 

 

"Social media, dealing with employees and dealing with the public, especially municipalities, I think the municipality has to be in a situation where they understand social media but they protect their employees as well as themselves," he said. 

 

"You don't want to infringe on anyone's First Amendment rights and to say I can control what you say on social media on your own time, the jury is out," he said. "I'm not familiar with any cases that have determined the outcome of that but I don't want to be the one to determine someone's freedom of speech."

Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @FowlerSarah