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Rochester's proposed social media policy limits free speech

Rochester's proposed social media policy limits free speech

Rochester is a divided city. Evidence of this was thrust out in the open during recent divisive local elections, but there is a quieter, less obvious division that has been brewing for a while. This underlying division was touched on during the election with “civility” as a candidate’s campaign platform.

At the start of 2017, Mayor Ardell Brede gave his State of the City address where he implored the community to “keep politics off Facebook!” City council and city staff have proposed a social media policy that includes mandates about the practices of volunteers on personal accounts. In a news story this week, the City Clerk stated that “no one is proactively looking at social media, rather it's a complaint based system.” This is not true; someone in the city is reviewing social media. I know because it happened to me.

During an interview for a city board position, I learned that city staff had been scrutinizing my social media posts. The Mayor had a printed copy of my Twitter account with some of my tweets highlighted. He said he “couldn’t believe someone as smart as [me] would write these things.” He told me they had not appointed me previously because they didn’t like what I had tweeted. He said what bothered him the most was a tweet about a Rochester City Councilperson. My tweet was in response to their disappointment on not being included in the discussions on diversifying city boards and commissions. I tweeted that in all the years this person had been on the Council they hadn’t done anything about the issue. I didn’t call the person an offensive name. I didn’t ridicule them. I feel that my comment was not only civil, but also factually true. Yet, while sitting face-to-face with the Mayor, I was being asked to defend my actions. 

The phrase “civility in politics” is overused and abused. Calling for civility is now used to silence opposing voices. Cruelty and criticism are not the same. When a line is drawn to say that some things should not be posted on social media, who determines where that line sits? If that responsibility fell to our Mayor, criticizing an elected official could qualify as unacceptable. If a social media policy is truly needed, it should be specific and establish an unbiased group who can review complaints.

City staff should not be combing through community members’ social media accounts as part of their application process for volunteer positions. As long as individuals are not participating in inciting violence, hate speech or threatening behavior, what they say on social media should be off-limits.

I would never sacrifice my free speech to sit on a city board, so I have decided to volunteer in other ways while continuing to use social media freely. Increased community engagement is vital to the success of our city. However, discouraging the public to speak out and participate in local government remains the mission of some within our city government. Increased community engagement – even on social media and even when someone is being critical – is vital to the success of our city. Expecting everyone who participates to share the same opinion is not only unrealistic, but also damaging to the process of democracy.

The city serves everyone; therefore, everyone must have a voice. This community should be concerned about civic leaders who seek to silence detractors and who resort to claims of offensiveness and being mean as a reason to stop listening.

Jessica Schmitt is a member of the advocacy group Rochester Forward.

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