KITTERY, Maine – Town councilors on Monday decided not to move forward with a social media policy, the vice chair stating, “If people don’t like what an elected official is saying or doing, vote ’em out.”
A policy as such was floated by several residents after the debate over school resource officers in Kittery pervaded community Facebook pages with divisive and polarizing language. Of specific concern to some residents was Councilor Charles Denault’s participation in the debate, via his personal Facebook page and his “Our Kittery” page.
“We did have several residents who requested that we develop a social media policy for council,” Town Councilor Chair Judy Spiller said Monday.
In looking at what other Maine communities have implemented, Spiller said she and Town Manager Kendra Amaral found “communities have policies for staff, but not for their government bodies.”
There are “a number of free speech and legal issues associated with a social media policy,” Spiller said.
Amaral previously said the Kittery School Committee’s social media policy, for example, would likely not hold up in court.
Some of the policies Amaral reviewed “call on employees and elected officials to acknowledge that their private comments reflect on the municipal organization and in some cases request, but not mandate, that such persons refrain from social media comments that could serve to reflect poorly on the organization,” she wrote to councilors ahead of Monday’s meeting.
Spiller cited a recent situation in Hampton involving Selectman Regina Barnes, who posted a meme on Facebook stating, “If you can pretend Bruce Jenner is a woman & Kamala Harris is Black, then you can definitely pretend I am wearing a mask.”
The posting promoted Black Lives Matter Seacoast to call for Barnes’ resignation.
“They’re struggling with how to deal with this issue,” Spiller said of the Hampton select board. “When you enter the public world of being an elected representative, you do lose some of your privacy.”
Denault acknowledged “some of the concerns that were levied to the Town Council were because of my involvement.” However, Denault said he was “ready right this minute” to detail various issues he has brought forward on social media over the years.
“It’s important that these things get out,” he said. “Social media has evolved, and it’s a way – from websites to Facebook and Twitter – that the information gets out there. And sometimes we don’t like it, whether it’s Trump or Biden, or whether it’s anybody.”
Included in Monday’s council packet was a 30-plus page report by former town councilor and current council candidate Gary Beers, which included a proposed local government code of ethics and social media.
In 2017 and 2018, town staff worked on a draft of an ethics ordinance for the Town Council, and ultimately, councilors decided not to adopt the ordinance.
“Having resurfaced now, serious attention” should be given to the issue, Beers wrote to councilors.
Also included in Beers’ report is a series of documents and screenshots compiled by resident and School Committee Vice Chair Anne Durgin Gilbert, alerting councilors to various remarks made by Denault on Facebook throughout the recent school resource officer debate.
Vice Chair Matt Brock said the council crosses into dangerous territory if it starts “putting limits on speech and free debate and vigorous debate.”
“I support to say let’s always exercise good judgment,” Brock said. “I’d love to say that I’ve always done that, or everybody on the council always does that. It doesn’t happen. It’s part of public life.”
Councilor Cyrus Clark’s message was simply “don’t go on social media.”
“Social media is toxic and everyone should be turning it off,” he said, citing an algorithm that taps into individuals’ feelings of “fear, hate and jealously.”
“Twitter and Facebook calls you users because you are an addict,” Clark said.