Q: What are government employees allowed to say on social media?
A: Generally, they can’t try to act as if they’re representing the government when they’re using their own accounts. And they also are not supposed to be obscene, threatening or discriminatory. The government, in fact, can fire them for saying the wrong things.
The main local government entities around here generally establish one set of rules for employees who are using social media as part of their jobs, and another set of rules for employees when using their own personal accounts.
The use of government social media accounts is pretty predictable: They can’t promote commercial activities, they can’t campaign, and they can’t use profane language. A recently-enacted Riley County government policy specifies all that.
The policy states county departments should “promote and maintain good order, discipline, security and comply with all applicable personnel policies and federal, state and local laws.” The county also possesses all account login and password information for county accounts.
It’s in the handling of personal accounts where the policies get complex.
Keep in mind we’re talking here about government employees specifically, not the current hot-button topic of what college students are allowed to say on social media.
The most prominent dispute on the matter of government employee social media use erupted in 2014, when a KU professor tweeted in response to a school shooting, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.” The state Board of Regents enacted a policy that faculty and staff of the state’s six universities, 19 community colleges and six technical colleges may not say anything on social media that would incite violence, disclose confidential student information or release protected data. But it also said staffers are barred from saying anything “contrary to the best interests of the university.”
Critics said the broad nature of the guidelines would offer administrators enormous latitude in firing people — even those with tenure.
The Kansas Board of Regents’ social media policy, which applies to Kansas State University, says staff members on their personal accounts can post and talk about their academic work and engage or make “appropriate statements” which comply with university policies, according to the statement.
The board uses criteria to figure out if there is a policy violation. The social media policy follows United States Supreme Court guidelines.
The criteria include consideration of the employee’s university position and whether the employee used the name of the school or university brands.
In the recently enacted policy for the Riley County government, employees can discuss county matters on their personal accounts, but if an employee decides to do this, the person must use the following statement: “The views expressed here are my own, and have not been reviewed or approved by Riley County.”
“This disclaimer does not shield employees from potential liability or disciplinary action if the communication violates Riley County policy or federal, state, or local law,” the policy states.
Employees cannot use county logos on personal social media accounts without prior written permission from the Riley County commissioners, according to the policy.
The policy states that employees’ personal social media accounts cannot be “represented” as Riley County ones.
Kevin Howser, county IT/GIS director, said Riley County previously did not have a “specific” social media policy for personal and official use.
“Our current IT policy does not adequately reflect the use of social media, which is why the new policy was proposed/adopted,” Howser said in an email to The Mercury.
There are similarities to other social media policies set by other government entities around town.
The city’s policy states that employees they cannot use a city email address for personal social media profiles. On personal accounts, employees cannot use city logos or images without permission. City employees are also responsible for any information or statements they share on their personal accounts.
According to the policy, employees “shall not represent, directly or indirectly, that any content on the personal social media profile belongs to, is endorsed by, or is on behalf of the city of Manhattan.”
The social media policy applies to all city employees, regardless of status, said Katie Jackson, city attorney.
The Manhattan-Ogden school district’s social media policy discourages a staff member on a personal account to interact or become “friends or connections” with current or future students and their parents, but it’s not necessarily a violation of the policy.
“Employees taking such action do so at their own risk,” the policy states.
Michele Jones, director of communications and school safety for the district, said it is a “gray area” for what employees can or can’t post on personal social media accounts.
“It is not spelled out specifically what employees can/cannot do related to social media,” Jones said in an email to The Mercury. “It would be impossible to cover all areas.”
The school district’s policy violations include a focus on misconduct of technology or online resources. Misconduct also includes if the social networking is impairing an employee’s job performance.
“Staff should use electronic communication at times that does not disrupt class or interfere with normal duties,” the policy states. “District staff shall endeavor to protect the health, safety, and emotional well-being of students and confidentiality of student record information both in the school setting and in their online actions.”
As for the board members and commissioners serving these entities, a lot of the policies apply to them as well.
Howser said he wasn’t sure if the policy applies to the county commissioners, but thought it applied to all users. Cindy Volanti, human resource manager for the county, provided further clarification on behalf of Howser.
“I would agree, the commissioners would be an authorized user that have agreed to follow our IT policies,” Volanti said in an email to The Mercury.
Jackson said a commissioner’s profile is not considered an official city profile.
“A commissioner’s use of their personal social media account would be evaluated in the context of the policy, as well as their constitutional rights as individuals and elected officials,” Jackson said in an email to The Mercury.
“That’s why the policy says that any alleged violation will be carefully reviewed based on its specific details in the ‘context of current law related to the employee’s free speech rights.’”
Jones also said she thinks the policies applies to Board of Education members when using district resources, such as the district iPad each member receives.
“But other than that, we wouldn’t have any authority over BOE members putting something out on their own,” she said in an email.
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