Losing Privacy for Public Service: Personal Social Media and the Public Forum

Losing Privacy for Public Service: Personal Social Media and the Public Forum


  1. A : the quality or state of being apart from company or observation:  seclusion

b :  freedom from unauthorized intrusion – one’s right to privacy

Whatever Mark Zuckerberg claims about privacy being obsolete, it’s simply not true.  While we may choose to share many things with others, we object when someone makes what we consider private public. Recent headlines about financial disclosure and voter records prove the point.

For elected officials, preserving privacy can be incredibly difficult.

Information about the private lives of public figures has media value. Audiences enjoy silly, ugly, strange or merely sad stories about public officials, as recent “news” about two divorces makes abundantly clear. With a 24-hour news cycle and a multitude of “news” outlets, there is great pressure to expand the bounds of what is considered public, securing additional content to feed the media’s (and our) insatiable demand.

Public figures ought to be able to enjoy legitimately private conversations, free from public scrutiny. For example, it ought to be possible to share personal news, thoughts and experiences on social media in private with our family and friends.

But recent litigation suggests the possibility that a public figure’s personal social media account may be public, at least if they discuss their public responsibilities there and engage a wide audience.

How can this be?

In Florida, public officials’ social media posts and interactions meant to perpetuate, communicate or formalize information and undertaken in one’s official capacity are public records. Anyone can access this content as a matter of right. Anyone. All of it. But only this type of content, not, for example, the great new recipe one might share with friends. And only the record; Florida law does not establish a right to be a party to the conversation.

Imagine a councilmember with a private social media account who is selective about accepting requests to “friend” or “follow,” seeking to preserve a social media space that is private and generally supportive.

Over time, the group of friends and followers grows in part precisely because of the councilmember’s status as councilmember. People want to be “friends” because they like what the councilmember is doing, to “follow” because they want to be “in” with this leader. And many requests are accepted.

From time to time, the councilmember exchanges comments with some “friends” or “followers” about issues facing the city, revealing a few “friends” to be enemies. Thinking of this social media environment as his/her private space, the councilmember blocks them.

But if the Facebook or Twitter account has become a place where discussions of the public’s business occur, it may be that the space has become a public forum, a place (like city hall) where any member of the public has a right to be present and to contribute. Just as a council cannot legally ban an individual from their meetings because the person criticizes them, the public official might not be able to block anyone from his/her social media account. The question is, at what point does one cross the line from private to public?

We don’t know.

In the interim, it would seem wise for elected officials to draw sharp lines between their personal social media and their public role. Otherwise, they may risk making even the most private of matters public.