After Facebook flaps, should Gwinnett do more to govern social media?

11:21 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 Local
Now-former Gwinnett Magistrate Judge Jim Hinkle (left) and current Gwinnett Commissioner Tommy Hunter have both caused uproar with posts on the personal social media pages. (Photos via Gwinnett County)

In the span of just over seven months, two Gwinnett County officials have sparked uproar with posts on their personal Facebook pages.

The posts raise questions not only about the disposition of the men behind them — the commissioner who called a civil rights icon and longtime legislator a “racist pig,” the judge who mocked those protesting Confederate monuments — but about what, if anything, governments should do to try and prevent such public displays.

Should they have social media policies? If those policies already exist, should they be stricter? Then again, do such policies really mean, or do, anything — especially when it comes to duly elected officials, who generally can’t be fired and are difficult to even punish? Is any of it a free speech issue?

It depends who you ask.

On Tuesday morning, Judge Jim Hinkle compared those calling for Confederate monuments to be removed to "ISI destroying history."

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said her government is “alert to the changing landscape related to social media” and employees but declined to say if any changes or new policies are being contemplated — because the county is currently being sued over the reprimand commissioners doled out to Commissioner Tommy Hunter following his foray into Facebook infamy.

Seth Weathers, Hunter’s consultant and spokesman, believes his client has indeed had his First Amendment rights breached, and has previously made it clear he thinks any kind of social media restrictions are bad ones.

But local activist Donna McLeod, who has played a role in the fallout from both of Gwinnett’s recent episodes, believes that “there needs to be something more.”

Across metro Atlanta, government approaches to social media use by officials and employees varies.

Atlanta spokeswoman Anne Torres said the city does not provide formal social media training when hiring employees, but there is a policy in place that urges them to “be thoughtful about how you present yourself in online social networks.” Senior staff members are asked to “assume that [their] posts will be seen and read by City of Atlanta colleagues, elected officials, and constituents and that they will presumptively associate such posts with the City of Atlanta,” the policy says.

(Mayor Kasim Reed, meanwhile, has no problem taking to social media when he feels he’s being unfairly attacked, shooting off fiery tweets aimed at everyone from reporters and political rivals to sports talk radio hosts.)

Cobb County does not have a specific social media policy, spokeswoman AikWah Leow said. It does, however, have an “electronic communications policy” that instructs county employees “not to engage in communicating any obscene, harassing, threatening, discriminatory, fraudulent or disruptive messages.”

Like most other metro Atlanta jurisdictions, DeKalb County prohibits employees from using social media for personal purposes at work — but that’s about it. Fulton County doesn’t really have a formal policy for personal social media use at all.

When reached by phone, Judge James Hinkle said he didn't see anything controversial about the post, adding that in today's world everything is controversial.

Gwinnett County’s approach to social media even changes from department to department.

Generally speaking, Gwinnett outlaws the use of social media on any county-owned devices. It also has guidelines that prohibit unauthorized employees from “posting any information, pictures, etc. on any social media site which creates the impression that the employee is representing the official position of Gwinnett County or which places the County in a negative light,” county spokesman Joe Sorenson said in an email.

The county’s fire and police departments have separate rules, as does the district attorney’s office.

DA Danny Porter said he has had a strict social media policy for his employees for years. It warns employees not to share anything that “infers, implies, states, opines or otherwise expresses” views that could “undermine the public’s trust or confidence in this office.”

Porter called the posts that led to the recent resignation of part-time Magistrate Judge Jim Hinkle — posts that included pro-Confederacy and anti-Islamic statements — “another compelling argument to not engage in social media.”

Hinkle, meanwhile, has said he didn’t find anything controversial about his online remarks, in which he called protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, “snowflakes” and compared those calling for Confederate monuments to be torn down to ISIS.

Gwinnett spokesman Joe Sorenson said last week that the county’s HR director “could not recall any serious staff issues” involving social media “that rose to his level.” And while government social media policies across metro Atlanta typically do not explicitly lay out penalties for violations, other government guidelines often do.

Gwinnett’s code of ethics, for instance, is focused largely on conflicts of interest and other forms of potential corruption but does include a few clauses that do things like urge officials to avoid “conduct unbecoming” of their positions. Hunter — the county commissioner who called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” — was publicly reprimanded under that tenet.

Most other counties have similar codes of ethics or conduct that could, at least theoretically, be used to target questionable online behavior. The code of ethics posted online for the Cobb County Police Department, for instance, urges employees to be “courteous and respectful in all [of their] contacts with the public.”

The First Amendment issue is a difficult one to grapple with, with the leanings of recent district- and federal-level court decisions depending on a variety of factors not present in every case. Gwinnett officials have argued that Hunter’s reprimand was not a speech issue but predicated on a “pattern of behavior” that reflected poorly on the county.

McLeod, the activist, has helped lead protests against Hunter and engaged with Hinkle on his original controversial Facebook post about protesters in Virginia. She doesn’t necessarily know the solution but, in her mind, Gwinnett’s recent social media snafus have made one thing clear.

“At the end of the day,” she said, ” the bottom line is with this new digital [world], Facebook posting and all that, there needs to be clear guidlines for elected officials.”

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