Tisbury leads the way with social media policies

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Photo courtesy of tisburyma.gov

Online social networking sites have expanded the range of workplace gossip, criticism, and complaints from conversations around the water cooler to cyberspace. However, the sites also may be used as a helpful resource to provide information and communicate with the public. With all of that in mind, many municipal, state and government agencies, including the town of Tisbury, are adopting social media policies for their employees as guidelines for workplace use.

Tisbury is the first among the Island towns to add such a policy. The selectmen approved the framework of a social media policy on November 27, and they finalized its wording at a brief meeting last week.

Chilmark may soon follow suit, however. The town’s human resource board plans to review a draft social media policy at a meeting today.

Tisbury’s social media policy has been in the works since last May, when town administrator John Bugbee first recommended its draft version to the selectmen.

In further discussion at the selectmen’s June 12 meeting, Mr. Bugbee noted that in general, online activity is a growing problem in municipal workplaces, particularly as it relates to confidential information about residents and towns being posted publicly on social media pages. “We need a policy that addresses that type of behavior,” he said.

Tisbury selectman chairman Tristan Israel said the selectmen’s move to adopt a policy was not prompted by any specific incident or issue, although over the last few years they became aware that some employees were conducting personal business online at work or using social media sites.

“I think when you work for a municipality that there is a certain responsibility that goes with it, and sometimes it’s hard to see how that creates a different set of circumstances for the use of social media, things like email and Facebook,” he said in a phone conversation with The Times on Tuesday. “People need to be responsible in their use of this new media, because for example, anything you do on a computer as a town employee, as part of the town’s business, is public record, whether it be issues that are sensitive or financial.”

As is the case with any revised or new town policy, all municipal employees will receive a copy and must sign a statement that they have read it, which goes into their personnel files, according to interim town administrator Aase Jones.

Town counsel David Doneski, an attorney with the firm Kopelman and Paige in Boston, provided Tisbury with a boiler-plate policy he said is used by many Massachusetts cities and towns. The policy gives department heads the option of allowing employees to participate on or create social media sites as part of their job duties.

To tweet or not to tweet?

“Social media in general includes such tools as: blogs, wikis, microblogging sites, such as Twitter; social networking sites such as Facebook and Linkedin; video sharing sites, such as YouTube; and bookmarking sites such as Del.icio.us,” the policy states.

All town department social media sites must comply with state, federal, and local regulations, including the Public Records Law and Copyright Law. The policy also cautions employees to avoid posting confidential information or statements that may be interpreted as defamatory on town social media sites.

The town may restrict public comments that are obscene, threatening, discriminatory, harassing or off-topic, but not ones with which the town merely disagrees. “Users have some First Amendment rights in posting content to public social media sites hosted by municipalities,” the policy says.

Although one of the purposes of such sites is to get feedback from the public, employees are told to expect that some of it will be negative. As examples of ways to respond, they are advised to provide accurate information “in the spirit of being helpful,” to respectfully disagree, or to acknowledge that different points of view are possible.

Employees are also reminded that although social media sites are intended to be informal, they are nonetheless official government communications and not a place to discuss or air their differences with their co-workers.

Communications such as emails sent to or received by town officials and employees, that are posted on social media sites, are public records and must be retained according to Public Records Retention Schedules, the policy says. Postings cannot be removed or changed, other than to fix spelling or grammar errors. Incorrect content must remain posted, and corrected information provided along with an explanation to site users.

“Social media sites will be sought out by mainstream media — so a great deal of thought needs to go into how you will use the social media in a way that benefits both the Town and the public,” the policy says. “Employees should not comment about rumors, political disputes, or personnel issues, for example,” the policy says.

Employees found in violation of Tisbury’s social media policy may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.

Separate policy for police

Tisbury’s police department actually was ahead of the town with a social networking policy of its own that went into effect on December 28, 2011. The policy was added in 2010 as part of a project to develop the department’s policy and procedure manual, as recommended by Robert Wasserman, a West Tisbury resident and international security consultant who had been hired by the selectmen.

The Tisbury police department based its new policies on those used by many departments in cities and towns across the state and the country, as well as the Municipal Police Institute’s (MPI) manual.

The department’s social networking policy is tailored more specifically for its personnel and also extends to their personal online activity.

“Employees’ personal sites are subject to admissibility in court proceedings,” the first paragraph of the policy states. “Therefore, all employees must avoid any conduct which would compromise this Department’s integrity and thus undercut the public confidence in this Department or their profession.”

Among its guidelines, employees are cautioned not to disclose their employment or rank within the department, photographs, department logos, emblems and any other material that specifically identifies the department on any personal, social networking websites and web pages.

Employees also are prohibited from using their title or position in personal correspondence, whether on a hard copy or in electronic form. “This includes, but is not limited to, signature lines in a personal email account, without the consent of the Chief of Police,” the policy says.

As an article in the November 2012 Federal Bureau of Investigation Law Enforcement Bulletin points out, the need for social media policies has become more critical because the availability of personal information online has raised the threat level for law enforcement personnel.

“Barriers between their professional and personal lives have been diminished,” Capt. Gwendolyn Waters of the San Bernardino, Calif., police department wrote. “Police may have no expectations that their homes and families will be protected from the dangers they face on the job.”

Social media also poses a potential theat to police officers’ credibility, which is essential to their job, she added.

“Law enforcement officers can find their honor under serious attack online at any time,” Captain Waters said. “Even erroneous information can reach a significant audience, to include potential jurors and internal affairs investigators, possibly causing irreparable damage to officers’ reputations.”

In summary, she said that social networks present risks that law enforcement agencies must acknowledge and take action to manage proactively.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police developed a model social media policy as a guideline for law enforcement agencies in 2010, through a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the U.S. Department of Justice.