Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


State News August: The New Public Sphere

the new public sphere

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Old Rules, New Media
Open Records Laws Apply to Government Business,
Regardless of Outlet
When Minnesota state Rep. Paul Gardner tweeted from the House floor about two colleagues in May, he was hit with ethics charges.
His colleagues, Tom Emmer and Mark Buesgens, said Gardner’s comments on the social networking site Twitter violated the spirit and letter of the ethical rules of the Minnesota House of Representatives, according to Minnesota Public Radio. The ethics committee agreed and recommended Gardner make an oral apology to the House of Representatives.
Gardner also canceled his Twitter account, reported.
His lesson is one that could serve others well.
With Facebook, Twitter and other new media, government officials have a whole new arena for communication with their constituents. But they also have to play by the old rules applying to ethics and the law.
Alexis Lambert, sunshine attorney for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, said officials—regardless of level of government—must remember that.
“The medium is never as important as the content,” said Lambert. “The content is the key.”
That means if a Facebook or MySpace page, Twitter or YouTube account deals with government business, it’s subject to the same rules as official government documents created in the traditional way, Lambert said.
McCollum’s office in April issued an opinion at the request of the city of Coral Springs, Fla., which started a Facebook page for the city. The city asked if the page would be subject to all the administrative rules that apply to open records.
The rules apply regardless of the medium, according to Lambert.
“The city would have to make sure they maintain that page, that they archive screen graphs on a daily basis and stay within archiving rules of public records,” Lambert said. She said the city’s “friends list” on Facebook is also open to inspection.
While the ruling only applies to government agencies and officials in Florida, Lambert said many states often follow Florida’s lead in open records cases.
“The real thing that government agencies need to be paying attention to is just making sure elected officials, members of boards are not using the technology as a way to get around open government laws,” Lambert said.
And officials need to determine the purpose of their page or account. Pages for personal use don’t fall under the same scrutiny as those for official government use. The laws also don’t apply to a politician’s campaign account in any new media.
But Lambert cautioned officials to stick to the original intent of a page. Once government business is discussed on a page, she said, that page becomes subject to the state’s sunshine laws.
She thinks it’s a good idea to keep personal and government e-mail and accounts completely separate, and advises elected officials and public servants to be careful with what they say on these sites—commonsense rules that anyone should follow.
“Really if you don’t want your grandma to read it, don’t tweet it,” Lambert said.
—Mary Branham



So You Want To Connect ...
Facebook now has more than 200 million active users worldwide who use the site to connect with friends, family and co-workers. Users can share messages, photos, videos and news, update status messages and more, as well as keep up-to-date with life in their circle of friends real time. Each profile page contains a wall that acts as a message board for the user’s friends or supporters. Political figures can set up their own profile pages where other users can click to support them. Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson has a Facebook page (he has nearly 4,000 Facebook supporters) where he regularly uploads videos and news updates, and lists his favorite movies, favorite music and interests. Who knew one of Grayson’s favorite movies was “Caddyshack”?



Flickr is an online photo management and sharing tool—and politicians have been using it to share their photos of events and campaign images. Flickr users can upload photos and video—and take them down—from the Web, from mobile devices, from their home computers and from whatever software they are using to manage their content, according to the Flickr Web site.
Users can share the images or video on the Flickr Web site, in RSS feeds, by e-mail, by posting to outside blogs or other ways, according to Flickr. For example, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle just launched his Flickr account this summer——and the first photos to go up were from his June and July events, including a photo of the governor handing out healthy sack lunches to Madison, Wis., school children.


An informal survey by State News of the governor’s offices found no governor has a MySpace page—although there are still some state government politicians on the site. Users can create unique personal profiles through the site to find and communicate with friends, according to the MySpace user agreement. They can share photos, blogs, video and pictures. Politicians are also able to host their own MySpace profile—and that was going on particularly with the 2008 presidential election. Politicians included features such as fundraising widgets and places to sign up for support on their profiles.


Some call it micro-blogging, but officially Twitter is a real-time short messaging service—referred to as “Tweets” or news/status updates—that works over multiple networks and devices, according to the Twitter Web site. Tweets, or the status updates, must be 140 characters or less and can be updated through text messaging, instant messaging or online. Along the same idea as the site’s tagline (“What are you doing?”), people can follow breaking news updates or they can track their favorite politician. Basically, users just sign up and then update their 140-character messages as often as they choose. By mid-summer, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had nearly 600,000 followers, those people subscribing to his Tweets. He’s the top-ranked state official according to followers, based on a list compiled by, a Web site tracking Twitter users. Schwarzenegger ranks 128 based on the number of followers, the Web site list shows.


State government officials are using YouTube to broadcast their speeches, events and other campaign coverage. Anyone and everyone worldwide can upload original videos and watch videos on YouTube, according to the site. Users on the site broadcast firsthand accounts of current events, videos about hobbies and interests, and the quirky and unusual—and they are all out there to see, according to YouTube’s company information.
Users can also establish their own YouTube channel. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has his own YouTube channel at His YouTube channel boasts nearly 140 loyal subscribers and more than 14,000 views. Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb posted videos on YouTube during her campaign for the seat.
The only catch to YouTube: Users must own or have permission from copyright holders to post any videos, the site said. Users can flag inappropriate content if it violates YouTube’s guidelines; it’s taken down within minutes, according to the site.
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