Should government agencies & councils be entitled to ban people from their social media channels?

I’ve been advised of an interesting situation with a resident of the Parramatta Council area, who has been blocked by council from their Twitter account.

He’s upset and has written to the Council, claiming that it is unconstitutional for a council to block its own rate-playing constituents from viewing their social media accounts, referring to the Lange vs ABC ruling in 1997.

While I’m unaware of the reason for this particular ban, it is an interesting situation and one we’re likely to see more often.

Do citizens have a right to interact with government through any channel?

Do government agencies have the right to prevent individual citizens from accessing or interacting via their official social media channels?

If so, in which circumstances do agencies have this right?

In my view social media is no different from other mediums of communication with agencies in this type of situation.

Having worked for the Child Support Agency I’m broadly aware there were cases where querulant, abusive and threatening clients had restraining orders taken out to keep them away from Child Support offices and protect public servants from potential harm.

I have also heard of cases where clients have been banned from communicating with Child Support by phone, due to adversarial and abusive behaviour, and required to communicate with the agency only by writing. (Note I don’t have names, places or other details, I’m just aware of these cases’ existence.)

Without being a lawyer, I see bans from official social media channels as similar, subject to conditions and requirements.

Public servants have a right to go about their jobs without being abused and threatened by citizens, particularly in situations where staff have no power to influence laws or procedures. Equally agencies, like other employers, have an obligation to protect their staff from inappropriate conduct.

When people join the public service they don’t give up the right to be treated with respected (although some in the media, politics and community forget this at times). Public servants should not be subjected to abuse or physical threats except where unavoidable in specific roles – police and defence personnel.

With social media it is relatively easy to set a terms of use and moderate the behaviour of participants through direct messages, moderation, temporary and permanent channel bans.

Generally citizens, constituents and clients have other avenues than social media for contacting agencies and councils, via mail, email, phone and in-person. They also have other ways to source the information they need to interact with councils in an effective manner.

So, in my non-lawyer view, as long as an agency or council makes acceptable conduct clear and other routes exist for citizens to source information and interact with government staff, banning a person from a Twitter, Facebook, or other online channel on a case by case basis, when necessary, is fine.

Of course agencies and councils should be held accountable for these bans, and should be prepared to justify the reasoning for their actions as part of their normal governance processes.

I have, myself, deleted citizen comments from government social media channels when they were off-topic, political or mildly abusive.

I have banned people from access where they were abusive, defamatory, threatening, encouraged violence or law breaking, were highly inappropriate, or where they repeatedly veered off-topic or became political in discussions where the terms of use and community guidelines made it clear that such conduct was unacceptable.

I’d always keep a copy of the term-breaking content as a record and, wherever possible with the social media tool, make it publicly clear why the deletion or ban occurred. When others I worked with managed social media channels, I advised similar scrutiny and approach.

All organisations need to be able to manage their official channels when users repeatedly ignore terms of use or engage via these social media channels for inappropriate ends.

So should government agencies & councils be entitled to ban people from their social media channels?

Yes, in my view, government agencies and councils should be entitled to delete comments and ban constituents from accessing and commenting on their official social media channels.

This is provided the terms of use are public, the moderation approach is balanced, there’s appropriate governance and scrutiny in place and where citizens have other routes to source the same information or interact with agencies.

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Bill Greeves

I completely agree Craig – social media channels should be treated like any other managed public forum. Set reasonable rules up front and apply them consistently. I liken it to the way most municipal governments manage the public comment section of a board/council meeting – you can talk for a specified amount of time, no cursing or defamation, etc. Other than that, you can pretty much say what you want = reasonably managed communication!

When I was doing research for a book on social media in government, I found my favorite example of a well-crafted Terms of Use/Commenting policy from Rick Cole, City Manager of Ventura, California (and awesomely he gave me permission to use it as an example in the book!