Social Media Policy Changes in Rochester, Minn., Spark Concern

While the highest standards are reserved for city-operated accounts and pages, the policy also limits offensive comments on personal accounts, especially posts that might reflect negatively on the city.

by Randy Petersen, Post-Bulletin / April 20, 2017
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(TNS) -- Nora Dooley voiced concern Monday that a revised social media policy seeking to clarify online expectations could create confusion, especially when language barriers exist.

"I know the policy is not intended to discriminate," said the chairwoman of the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission. "I know the policy is not intended to silence people, but the reality is people who don't understand the language as well as those of us here have trouble with that."

While the county commission isn't ruled by the city policy, she noted concerns were voiced by members of the city's Police Policy Oversight Commission, who would be governed by the city policy.

Dooley said two members of the commission are not native English speakers and suggested the city adopt a training policy for anyone who may not fully understand the implications of the policy.

Linda Hillenbrand, director of Human Resources, acknowledged the concern and said she plans to add the policy to training being prepared for new members of the city's volunteer boards and commissions.

"The intent of the policy is not to stifle conversation or debate," she clarified during 33 minutes of council discussion Monday night before the Rochester City Council voted 6-1 to approve the revised policy.

Council member Mark Hickey noted the updated policy clarifies expectations of how city staff, elected officials and members of volunteer boards and commissions conduct themselves online.

While the highest standards are reserved for city-operated accounts and pages, the policy also limits offensive comments on personal accounts, especially posts that could reflect negatively on the city.

"This is an existing policy," he said about concerns that it curtails free speech. "I'm not sure there has been an instance where people have been stifled."

During discussion, Council Member Michael Wojcik took the opportunity to point to a case in which Council President Randy Staver sent Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Lindsey Meek a letter regarding a post she made on Twitter.

Wojcik, who cast the sole vote against the policy revision, raised the question of oversight regarding board and commission members.

"If they are recommended by the mayor, then the mayor would be the one to take action," City Administrator Stevan Kvenvold said.

As a result, Wojcik said, the policy change makes Staver's letter to Meek inappropriate.

"Bottom line is none of us get to individually reprimand volunteer board members," he said, noting he still has concerns about the mayor's potential ability to remove some board members without council approval.

Council Member Nick Campion acknowledged he's not completely comfortable with the policy and will advocate to its removal if it's used to stifle free speech. However, he offered additional changes to clarify the policy and note that obscene and racially charged comments are not acceptable in any posts, whether on city-operated or personal accounts.

"As long as we are going to have one, I want it to be the best possible one for everyone," he said.

Council Member Ed Hruska said the goal is to establish a policy that is "generally right" and can be changed if concerns arise.

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