Skip to main content

Voices. Knowledge. Solutions.

Avoid the Pitfalls of Elected Official Social Media

With social media now a key channel public officials can use to communicate, questions on how to best use it in compliance with the law have become commonplace. At the Municipal Association’s Annual Meeting, Association General Counsel Eric Shytle and Field Services Manager Charlie Barrineau led a session on social media problems that officials should avoid. 
The key legal issue in governmental social media lies in the freedom of speech guarantee of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and whether a social media account has become a “public forum.” 

Shytle explained the 2019 case, Davison v. Randall, in which the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a county councilmember’s personal Facebook page created a public forum, since the page was a “government official” page that gave her official contact information and invited feedback on local issues. 

Most of her posts related to her work and position as a member of the council. One post invited any resident to express feelings on any topic. Because the page was a public forum, the First Amendment applied to it, and the court concluded that the councilmember violated the First Amendment when she deleted comments based on their viewpoint.

A more recent Sixth Circuit case from 2022, Lindke v. Freed, found that a city manager, James Freed, did not create a public forum with his Facebook account. Freed’s profile description, for example, emphasized the personal nature of the account first and his status as an official second, reading, “Daddy to Lucy, Husband to Jessie and City Manager, Chief Administrative Officer for the citizens of Port Huron, Michigan.” On the account, he shared things like photos of his daughter’s birthday, visits to local community events and his family’s weekend picnics, although he posted about some of his administrative directives and his city’s policies. 
“It’s wise to keep your personal social media separate from your elected official social media,” Shytle said.

In the same session, Barrineau took a look at social media habits elected officials should practice, like thinking carefully before posting, liking or sharing, and remembering their status as an official when they are doing so. He also encouraged officials to always work as a community cheerleader when using social media, and direct readers to the municipal website and other resources as appropriate.
For those whose city and town have a public information officer or a communications team, Barrineau stressed the importance of trusting the work they are doing, and to always follow communication policies and plans when they have been developed.
He also pointed to things to avoid — establishing a social media account and then not using it, getting into discussions of items that either will be or could be on a public meeting agenda, and engaging in attacks on other officials involved in the local government.

“Jabs at your fellow elected officials, municipal staff, appointed officials or even other agencies make you look bad,” Barrineau said.