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Lawyer Urges Officials: Keep Off Facebook

The law sometimes lags behind technology. One area where this is much apparent is in the law of public access. Many states' public records and open meeting laws were enacted years ago -- in some cases even before the Internet came about, let alone Facebook or Twitter. These aging laws struggle to fit emerging technologies, raising any number of thorny issues as they do.

An intriguing example of this arose last week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where City Attorney Harry Stewart issued a memorandum to the mayor and elected officials last Thursday telling them in no uncertain terms: Stay off Facebook. For that matter, avoid having any form of Web site, if at all possible.

It is a simple fact that the state of the law is lagging woefully behind the state of the art in communications technology. This presents unique challenges in following the intent and the letter of these laws regulating public meetings and communications of local government.

For this reason, this office discourages the City’s participation in a Facebook page or any similar interactive communication technology. The current City website is not interactive and offers the ability to post information for the public. Facebook pages or websites for individual Commissioners are also discouraged. If individual Commissioners wish to have their own website, they should be used for informational purposes only or to solicit constituent opinions, however care should be taken to avoid posting position statements held by Commissioners on issues that may come before the Commission. It should also be noted that even on personal websites, retention schedules for public records must be followed.

Stewart's memorandum came on the heels of an April 23 Florida attorney general opinion addressing whether the city of Coral Springs, Fla., could establish a Facebook page. It certainly may do so, Attorney General Bill McCollum opined, provided it adheres to all of the requirements of the state's Sunshine Law. That means that everything placed on the page becomes a public record subject to public disclosure -- and that even the pages of the city's Facebook "friends" could become public records.

The Sun Sentinel blog Broward Politics, which reported Stewart's memo, says that Fort Lauderdale Mayor John P. Seiler already has a Facebook page that he created for his campaign but no longer maintains. Meanwhile, Coral Gables plans to forge ahead with its Facebook page, despite the concerns raised in the AG's opinion. Florida residents who'd rather not have their Facebook photos show up on the public docket are advised not to "friend" Coral Gables -- or any other government entity.  

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on May 18, 2009 at 12:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

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