TribBlog: Senators Get Social

With more and more state employees and elected officials using websites like Facebook and Twitter the onslaught of social media use within governmental bodies brings with it a lot of questions.

State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, has 129 followers on Twitter and has posted four Tweets under the name @senatorduncan since last year.

Until today, the chairman of the Senate Committee on State Affairs didn't even know he had a Twitter account.

With more and more state employees and elected officials using websites like Facebook and Twitter the onslaught of social media use within governmental bodies brings with it a lot of questions. The Senate Committee on State Affairs listened today to communication experts, lawyers and representatives from various organizations, who urged members to incorporate social media and electronic communication rules in Texas’ Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act, as well as create uniform social networking guidelines for government agencies and employees. 

As witnesses delivered their presentations, ranging from state employees’ Facebook status updates to school board members reading text messages during meetings, one thing was clear — the lines are fuzzy when it comes to the ever-changing social media world.

Peter Vogel, a communication lawyer and professor at Southern Methodist University’s law school, suggested that establishing social media policies for government employees and state agencies would provide uniformity and help iron out the wrinkles when employees post on blogs, Facebook or Twitter on their own time.

“This is not black and white, and if you don’t particularly tell them, they might have no clue what to do,” he told committee members. “These [sites] could ultimately change, and I think it’s important that the state continue to monitor that change.”

Other key questions witnesses brought up included:

  • Under the current Public Information Act, any emails sent between officials — whether via government e-mail accounts or personal accounts — regarding business issues are considered public information, but what about texts and e-mails sent via a smart phone?
  • Should candidates have different Twitter and Facebook accounts for their personal business, campaigns and public platforms?
  • Does e-mailing about business issues prior to an open school board meeting inadvertently violate the Open Meetings Act?

The big question is where does Texas draw the line, and Duncan said the committee will consider ways to create an enforceable policy.

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