Social Sites Can Bump Up against Open Meeting Laws; Politicians Say They Take Care Not to Discuss Public Business

Article excerpt

Byline: JOSH SALMAN

Less than two years ago, Barack Obama had an innovative idea. He would create MySpace and Facebook pages to publicize his run for the presidency.

The Web sites drew millions of viewers, and the concept spread.

Social networking sites have become a powerful marketing tool for politicians across the nation, but a recent opinion by the Florida attorney general warns that Web sites like Facebook and Twitter also can create a wealth of Sunshine Law violations.

"It's becoming a popular issue," said Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation. "You can't have two members of a board communicating between Facebook. These officials have to be very cautious."

Attorney General Bill McCollum gave city officials the go-ahead to create Facebook pages, but reminded them it's prohibited to engage in discussions concerning public business. All of the content also would have to be retained, he wrote in his issued opinion.

Facebook posts and comments would follow the current public record laws already in place. And although the practice of elected officials using Twitter hasn't gained the popularity of Facebook, the same laws still apply.

Even if two politicians don't directly share messages, comments left in reaction to a previous correspondence could be taken as a violation of the law, McCollum said.

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton has a Facebook page that gets updated regularly by his assistant, Renee Brust.

Brust said the page mostly is used to share photos, and no private or city-related messages are sent through the site. The page also has limited availability for users to post comments.

To avoid public record violations, Brust said she saves all of the page's back content indefinitely.

"Our intent was the exact opposite," Brust said. "This was an effort to be more transparent. It would be crazy not to use it."

Use of social sites extends beyond the Mayor's Office.

At least five of the 19 Jacksonville City Council members have Facebook pages, two of which are set to a private status and can be viewed only by the users' friends.

Many of the council members are friends with each other through the Web site, allowing them to send private messages and comments.

In June 2007, Jacksonville council members spurred a grand jury investigation over routinely violating state law by not meeting in publicly available places, not announcing meetings to the public and not keeping proper records of meetings. …