Monday, October 12, 2020

Extending the Reach of Richardson's Gag Order

The City of Richardson is considering a social media policy. Let's stipulate that this resulted from the City's embarrassing BimboGate in early 2019. Mayor Paul Voelker addressed that, eloquently and sufficiently, in my mind, with this statement of belief: "Richardson’s values are best upheld when we engage in civic discourse that is civil in tone, respectful of others and designed to produce constructive outcomes for the betterment of our community."

What's left to do? Well, I suppose the City Council could adopt the mayor's statement of belief as its official social media policy. Simple. Done. Next. But bureaucrats can't stop at one sentence. In a presentation to City Council, city staff went on for seven pages detailing a proposed social media policy, with Application, Definitions, Best Practices & Guidelines, and Professional & Personal Conduct Standards. Really.

What could be a simple one sentence policy ballooned into a seven page Christmas tree. Call me cynical, but... I suspect that not all the ornaments on the tree are designed to serve the public. I suspect some treats for the city power brokers have been sneaked in there. For instance, I found this paragraph on page seven, presumably deep enough into the policy that by then readers had been lulled to sleep.

In order to ensure that all individuals or entities receive a fair and neutral resolution of matters considered by the City, and to avoid allegations of favoritism and/or bias for or against any individual, entity or issue, officials are prohibited from making any statements on social media regarding any individual, entity or issue which is reasonably likely to be considered by the body on which the official serves.
With that, a social media policy that could be as simple as "don't call women bimbos" becomes "don't say anything about council business." Instead of "Don't say stupid things," it becomes "In order to not say stupid things, don't say anything at all." Way too broad. Gag order broad.

Remember that the original Code of Ethics that was adopted in 2010 contained hidden within it a gag order against whistleblowers. Now BimboGate is being used as a pretext to expand that gag order to cover all social media discussion of any City Council business. I don't know how many more "reforms" like this good government will be able to withstand.

1 comment:

Mark Steger said...

Prohibiting council members from making "any statements on social media regarding any individual, entity or issue which is reasonably likely to be considered" is unenforceable on 1st Amendment grounds. Likewise unenforceable is the prohibition in the Code of Ethics against disclosing "any information from a meeting closed to the public pursuant to the Texas Open Meetings Act or other law regardless of whether disclosure violates the Texas Open Meetings Act or Texas Public Information Act." Properly worded rules should be drawn as narrowly as possible to avoid stepping on freedom of speech rights, and both of these are overly broad.
The right way forward is repeal. We can consider repeal and replace, but I don't think the citizens lose anything if both offending gag orders are not replaced.