Tweets, postings trigger public records rules for officials

Tweets, postings trigger public records rules for officials

Every tweet, every “Like,” every photo, every status update … even who they “poke.”

Every time local-government officials in Florida use social media in their public position they are creating a public record, something they’re required to keep and produce upon request.

More Broward and Palm Beach county public officials are turning to social media to spread their message directly to digital “friends” and “followers.”

On one hand, social media and the access to local officials that it can provide the public fits in with the spirit of Florida’s open government laws, intended to assure public access to government documents and meetings.

On the other hand, it offers another avenue for communication between elected officials of the same boards and commissions, a no-no under Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law if those officials discuss public business outside of a public meeting.

Even now, some public officials diving right into FacebookTwitterand other social media, are unclear how they would respond to a public-record request for every message they ever tapped into their smartphone and sent off into the cyber world.

“The onus is on the person tweeting or using Facebook to maintain records according to Florida law,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, an open-government advocacy group. “Everybody has got to be your ‘Friend.’ You can’t hide anything. … It’s all subject to disclosure.”

Despite those records issues, social media is becoming a valuable tool for public officials to spread the word about everything from potholes to political campaigns, without having to filter it through the press or count on people to show up for a stump speech.

“It reaches different people. It’s reaching a younger generation,” said Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter, who uses Facebook and Twitter and posts YouTube videos. “I felt it was very important to put my own message out there … to talk directly to the voters.”

Steven Abrams was the first Palm Beach County commissioner to launch a Facebook page for his commission office.

He posts photos from community events, links to information posted by county departments and updates on his day-to-day activities from meeting with the governor to speaking to civic groups.

“My kids are on Facebook. … It takes having it in the house and seeing it,” said Abrams. “Social media is how people are communicating these days.”

Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti launched CyberVisor, the Broward Sheriff Office’s version of Twitter, which allows people to register to receive email and text messages with information about criminal activity, traffic tie-ups and or other security issues.

That has generated crime tips and allowed for direct communications with the public that weren’t available before, Lamberti said.

“Just taking advantage of technology, you can reach more people in real time,” Lamberti said.

Lamberti has thousands of followers on Facebook, including a personal page, a fan page and campaign page. On his personal page, Lamberti last year started blocking access to those who posted campaign material.

“My personal page is my personal page,” Lamberti said.

Ritter said she posts videos on YouTube to inform the public about “what is actually going on” with Broward County government. “I’m not the person you read about in the paper,” Ritter said.

Ritter said she would err on the side of considering her social media postings public records, though she maintains there is a difference between postings about county business and her family vacations.

Whether or not a public official keeps a record of all social media postings, most anything ever posted likely can be found on the Internet, Ritter said.

“There’s very little privacy left,” Ritter said. “Once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

Florida law has a broad definition for “public records” that includes material “regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission.”

“People kind of think less before they hit the ‘Go’ button on social media,” said Jacksonville attorney Jennifer Mansfield, who heads the Florida Bar’s media and communications law committee. “It creates issues. … Any record generated is a public record that should be available upon request.”

The Florida Attorney General’s Office in 2010 put public officials on notice that electronic communications could be “easily retained” and that the contents of local government Facebook pages are subject to the public records law.

“These are public records and you’ve got to retain them,” Petersen said. “Nobody says they shouldn’t do it. … Just pay attention to the law.”

abreid@tribune.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews