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Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have increasingly become a way for the public to engage with, petition and criticize government officials.

A couple months ago, Huntington Beach City Council members asked city staff at their strategic planning session in January to come up with a social media policy for elected and appointed officials.

“One of the reasons why we want to establish a policy is so that everybody is sort of on notice that if you want to engage in constituent blocking, you could be opening up the city to a lawsuit like what happened with [former Irvine Mayor] Christina Shea,” Councilman Mike Posey said in a phone interview.

Such activity has led several courts, including The Supreme Court, to rule that government officials’ social media pages are public forums protected by the first amendment.

Last summer, former Irvine Mayor Christina Shea was sued for blocking people on Facebook and deleting comments that criticized her opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as defunding the police. 

Many constituents argued her actions violated their first amendment rights. 

In the end, Irvine taxpayers spent $120,000 to settle the lawsuit.

Now, some cities are rolling out policies to ensure elected and appointed officials don’t get them sued for their social media activity and ensure those first amendment rights are protected.

This Monday Huntington Beach City Council members will consider such a policy submitted by City Manager Oliver Chi at their 6 p.m. meeting, which can be viewed live through Zoom or the link provided here.

“We just need to make sure we know what the updated rules are so that we’re not running afoul of the law,” Chi said.

If approved, Huntington Beach would not be the first city to have a social media policy.

San Juan Capistrano officials adopted their policy in February, which puts restrictions on how city officials can communicate with each other online about official business.

Under the proposed policy in Huntington Beach, any content posted on a city’s official social media page is subject to state transparency laws like the California Public Records Act and Brown Act.

City officials would also be barred from blocking people on their official social media accounts or deleting comments based on the individual’s viewpoints.

There are multiple exceptions, however.

Comments can be deleted if they include vulgar language, are discriminatory, include sexual content, “information that could compromise the safety or security of the public” and more.

Chi said there has been complaints about certain elected and appointed city officials who may be blocking folks who they disagree with.

“We haven’t had formal complaints. We’ve had email complaints from members of the public at times,” Chi said.

The guidelines would apply to official social media accounts that promote or discuss city business and not personal accounts. 

Posey said he has questions for staff on how to differentiate between personal and official accounts.

“Even though you’re an elected city council member, you should have the option of maintaining a private page for family and friends and also have the option of being on social media or not being on social media, for communicating city business and city policy out to the constituency,” he said.

Shea isn’t the only Orange County politician who has been scrutinized for blocking comments, representatives from both sides of the aisle are being criticized for it.

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan has been called out for it and so has Mari Barke, a board member on Orange County’s Board of Education, as commenters shared their complaints on Twitter and Facebook. 

Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths was also criticized by his constituents during his Congressional race last year for blocking and or deleting posts on social media criticizing him.

In Huntington Beach, City Councilman Tito Ortiz has received similar complaints, according to Chi.

“I’ve talked to him previously and he maintains that he keeps things separate. On any of his social media accounts where he’s engaged in city business, he doesn’t block anyone, doesn’t delete comments and is following the rules,” Chi said.

He added that Ortiz doesn’t think he’ll have trouble following the proposed rules.

Ortiz has been turning some heads with some of his social media posts on masks and vaccines.

Some of his behavior on and off social media regarding masks almost got Ortiz’s title of Mayor Pro Tem stripped away from him by his fellow council members.

Posey said the policy will not dictate what council members can post or not post.

“We still have the First Amendment and you’re free to say anything you want, even if you’re wrong. I don’t think that we would want to try to restrict freedom of speech. What we want to do is not restrict freedom of access or response from constituents,” he said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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