The Chicago Board of Ethics on Tuesday laid down rules of the road for aldermen seeking to navigate social media.
The complex, seven-page ruling could leave aldermen seeking strict guidelines on where and how to draw the lines between their official, political and personal Facebook pages, Twitter and Instagram accounts and websites more confused than ever.
The advisory opinion states that “political/campaign” websites and social media accounts may include content regarding city or ward business.
But only if they are “not funded or maintained with city resources,” and do not “take on the character of an official city website or page, such as including the city seal or links to the city’s website or city services in such a manner as users could reasonably think it is a city page.”
Those “political/campaign” websites must also “contain appropriate disclaimer language on the main page identifying the accounts as personal, non-governmental accounts that do not represent the official policies or positions of the City of Chicago.”
If aldermen have official or personal websites or social media accounts that do include the city seal or references to city services, they “must remain free of ‘electioneering’ content, such as, ‘Re-elect me for the following reasons’ and must have no links to any political committee or references to making campaign donations.
That’s even if the sites or accounts are full-funded with political or campaign funds and including legally-mandated disclaimers, the board’s opinion states.
Elected officials whose personal social media accounts include political content, including political endorsements or opinions on city business or issues “should not block or delete followers from accessing those pages.”
Nor should they delete “critical or negative comments” unless those remarks are “obscene, profane, libelous or defamatory or are commercial and posted to sell goods or services,” the opinion states.
Chicago police personnel are prohibited by departmental order from posting badges, logos or other “intellectual property of the CPD or the city” on their personal social media accounts.
“They may use their job title and may post political content, provided they include disclaimers making it clear that they are not speaking for the Chicago Police Department and comply with CPD-specific directives and rules,” the advisory states.
Tuesday’s opinion was issued in response to a barrage of questions posed to Steve Berlin, executive director of the Board of Ethics, during City Council budget hearings.
The “overarching general principle” is simple: “Government funds or resources should not be spent to help incumbents gain re-election,” the board concluded.
“The Board recognizes the ever-expanding role of social media as a means of communication and, in turn, the increase in the number and complexity of related issues raised,” the opinion states.
After the budget hearing, an alderman whose name was redacted from the opinion shared her Facebook page with Berlin. It included announcements and photos of her appearing as alderman at various public events, and photos of her appearing with other political leaders. It also include city service announcements as well as her official reaction to the conviction of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald.
The alderman asked whether she can post political endorsements on the page and “whether she can block or de-friend followers who have posted profanity and/or called her racist or other offensive names on the page,” the advisory states.
“Our answers are no. We advise creating a third, purely political campaign page or account to do this and users or followers can be deleted or blocked only under rare circumstances,” the board concluded.
Aldermen determined to maintain a personal page were advised to maintain “three distinct social media pages.”
One would be “purely political or campaign related and may include political or electioneering content.”
The second would be a personal page that could include government information or even the city seal, so long as it does not include electioneering content.
And the third would be an official city site devoid of politics that can be funded with city or political money with technical assistance from the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology and may include the city seal and links to city departments.