SLO Council considering social media policy following mayor blocking users

SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon

By JOSH FRIEDMAN

Amid allegations Mayor Heidi Harmon violated  the rights of others when she blocked people who disagree with her from commenting on her social media pages, the San Luis Obispo City Council on Tuesday will consider adopting a social media policy for public officials.

In 2019, the Fourth Court of Appeals ruled that the comment section of a public official’s social media page is a public forum, meaning they cannot delete the comments of those who disagree with them based on their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. 

Nevertheless, late last year, Harmon received a public records request asking for a list of everyone she had blocked from her social media accounts. Shortly later, Harmon announced she was leaving social media to promote personal connectivity. 

Harmon acknowledged blocking at least 25 Instagram users and 58 Facebook users, though based on screenshots she submitted in response to the records request, it appeared the list of blocked users was incomplete. 

The mayor has left and returned to social media multiple times since receiving the records request. Currently, she is back on social media and has reportedly unblocked the users she blocked. 

During its meeting Tuesday, the council will consider approving a proposed set of policies to require, “social media posts and messages by public officials regarding matters that are before the city for action or within city jurisdiction can be ‘official city business’ subject to laws and policies regarding freedom of speech, records retention and production and public transparency.”

SLO’s draft social media policy calls for public officials to avoid deleting comments or blocking users on official pages or sites they maintain. 

The policy would also require council members to delineate between separate accounts for official communications and personal or campaign statements. Council members would need to convey that their personal or campaign communications do not represent the position of the city or the city council as a whole.

Under the proposed policy, personal and campaign accounts would be prohibited from displaying the individual’s elected office in the name of the profile. Officials would also be prohibited from displaying a city logo or an official city mark on their personal or campaign pages.

If council members receive communication about city business on a personal account, they would be expected to copy the information to their official city accounts for the purpose of transparency and ease of access in case of public record requests. 

Social media content would need to be retained in accordance with city policy on keeping documents or in line with a minimum two-year period required by state law. 

Furthermore, social media communications would need to be consistent with new provisions of California’s Brown Act that prohibit social media interactions between council members on matters of official city business. 

Conversely, council members would be allowed to discuss official business on social media if they are answering questions, providing information to the public or soliciting information from the public. 

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