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San Juan Capistrano officials now have strict limitations on how they can communicate with each other about official business online after the City Council recently adopted a new policy governing private social media accounts.
Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Youth Media program, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact Digital Editor Sonya Quick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A staff report delineates city officials should be aware of the content they post on social media, as their posts may be accessible to anyone under the Public Records Act. City officials are now barred from discussing agency business with a majority of the same legislative body, and cannot respond directly to each other’s social media posts if they are on the same panel.
The City Council unanimously approved the new policy at its Feb. 16 meeting without comment. According to the staff report, the new rule complies with state Assembly Bill 992 which went into effect in January, “clarifying how public officials may communicate on internet-based social media platforms.”
“The bill applies the state’s existing open meeting laws to new internet-based forms of communication, and the council adopted its policy to be sure we’re compliant with the new law,” City Manager Benjamin Siegel said in an email to the Voice of OC.
Before the state legislation, the Brown Act was silent on social media communications, the staff report states. Prior to San Juan Capistrano adopting the policy, there was leeway in the parameters of the Brown Act, which requires legislative bodies of public agencies must discuss issues and take action during open meetings.
Last July controversy erupted when Irvine Mayor Christina Shea was sued for blocking some residents on her Facebook page who criticized her posted opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement, an act constituents claimed violated their First Amendment rights. Irvine taxpayers ended up paying $120,000 last year to settle the lawsuit.
San Juan Capistrano’s new policy recognizes that agency officials’ private social media accounts may become public forums where members of the public may have First Amendment rights.