Indiana City Develops Policy for City Facebook Pages

The efforts come in the wake of moves by Elkhart officials to settle a lawsuit related to one of the city's Facebook pages, but a Goshen rep says that didn't spur their moves.

by Shawn Mcgrath, The Elkhart Truth (Elkhart, Ind) / December 14, 2016

(TNS) -- GOSHEN — Officials in Goshen, Ind., are developing a policy governing the city’s social media accounts, including Facebook.

The efforts come in the wake of moves by Elkhart officials to settle a lawsuit related to one of the city's Facebook pages, but a Goshen rep says that didn't spur their moves.

Goshen officials were aware of Elkhart's settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit stemming from the city's decision to ban a critic from commenting on one of its Facebook pages, said Sharon Hernandez, city spokeswoman. But Goshen officials decided several months ago to craft a social media policy. No timeline has been set for completion of the effort.

“It’s not about what we can tell the public to say or not to say,” Hernandez said. “It’s more about how we need to, one, put out our message as the city of Goshen, and two, what happens if somebody posts something that is a threat or is obscene language or something like that.”

Elkhart has 15 separate Facebook pages for various city departments. Goshen, by contrast, has just three -- for the city government, the police department and the parks department.

As a government agency’s site, there is little the city can do to restrict the public’s free speech rights, Hernandez said. But the city can set rules for how city employees manage the city’s social media sites. Both Mayor Jeremy Stutsman and Hernandez emphasized there will be no censoring of postings to the city’s Facebook pages, unless language involves illegal activity or potential criminality.

Since he took office Jan. 1, Stutsman said he has already reached out to one Facebook commenter who made what the mayor considered a post with “racial undertones” to the city’s page.

“I said, ‘You don’t have to remove it. I’m not asking you to remove it, but it’s nice if we can keep these things respectful,'" Stutsman said. The poster said "they made it in haste," Stutsman said, and eventually deleted the comment.

In the Elkhart case, the city's Board of Public Works voted last week to approve a settlement with the ACLU, which filed a federal lawsuit against the city in October. The ACLU represented Richard Wolf, a local advocate for the disabled who charged that the city violated his First Amendment rights by blocking him from commenting on the city’s Facebook page.

As part of the settlement, the city has agreed to pay $2,350 for Wolf’s legal fees and not delete Wolf’s comments or block him from commenting on the city’s Facebook site, according to court filings.

©2016 The Elkhart Truth (Elkhart, Ind). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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