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Stop Blocking Voters On Twitter, Ethics Board Warns Aldermen

But aldermen can delete comments posted to their pages if they are "profane" or "libelous," according to the new opinion.

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CITY HALL — Aldermen who use social media like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with constituents and city residents should not block people from following their accounts or delete comments critical of them or their positions, according to an advisory opinion from the Chicago Board of Ethics.

However, aldermen may delete comments posted to their pages if they are “obscene, profane, libelous or defamatory, or are commercial and posted to sell goods or services,” according to the opinion signed by Chairman William Conlon.

In addition, aldermen who use “personal” websites or social media accounts “to comment on public affairs or matters involving city government” should include a policy that outlines guidelines for posting and what types of comments will be deleted, according to Conlon.

President Donald Trump is appealing a court ruling that held the First Amendment prohibits him from blocking members of the public from following his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account.

However, city officials who maintain “a purely personal” website or social media account that comments only on non-work related matters such as their hobbies and family are “not required to provide access to all members of the public, and nothing in the ordinance prohibits the official from blocking or deleting comments, users or followers,” according to the opinion.

“Regardless of the type of social media account at issue, the board urges that all posted content be true and accurate to the best of the poster’s knowledge,” the opinion reads.

The advisory opinion was prompted by questions posed by several aldermen to Executive Director Steve Berlin during the Ethics Board budget hearing in October. Inspector General Joseph Ferguson told aldermen earlier that month they should maintain two social media accounts — one for their duties as an elected official, and the other as a candidate for office.

Aldermen should abide by one general principle: “government funds or resources should not be spent to help incumbents gain re-election,” according to the opinion.

Non-official “personal” or “political” social media accounts of city elected officials (or any city employees or officials) who comment on public affairs or matters involving city, state or federal government policies and politicians should include a disclaimer, visible on the account’s main page, identifying the account as a personal or political account, the opinion advised. 

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said during the budget hearing that having two accounts — one official, one for campaign or personal use — would be cumbersome and likened the ruling to “Big Brother” looking over aldermen’s shoulders.

But the opinion from the Ethics Board makes it clear that aldermen should take pains to keep accounts designed to promote their bids for re-election separate from those designed to inform the public about their official duties as aldermen.

Campaign-focused websites or social media accounts may include information about ward or city business, but may not be maintained with tax money, include the city seal or links to the city’s website or give the “reasonable” impression it is a city page, according to the opinion.

Campaign-focused websites and social media accounts should also feature a disclaimer “on the main page” identifying them as “personal, non-governmental accounts that do not represent the official policies or positions of the city of Chicago.”

“‘Electioneering content’ may only occur on ‘political’ or campaign websites or accounts, and that any site or account that contains such statements may not contain links to their official city pages or any other pages or accounts that display the city seal,” according to the opinion.

Community events — such as shredding events — may be posted only on aldermen’s official pages if they learn about the event as part of their official duties, the opinion states. 

However, event listings that are widely advertised through other media — such as newspapers — can be posted on both official and campaign websites or social media accounts. 

“‘Official’ city sites can not include links and/or information regarding an alderman’s political/campaign social media pages, nor even a disclaimer that the page is an official city page, not a political/campaign page, nor a link re-directing users to the political/campaign page,” according to the opinion.