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To tweet or not to tweet: When is it ok for local government to say no to social media?

(Photo by CC Images, Kooroshication)

Seattle’s Sarah Schacht doesn’t take dining out lightly.

“I’m a two time E. coli survivor,” Sarah said. “My family was affected by the Jack in the Box outbreak 20 years ago. Then, in winter of 2013, I got E. coli in an outbreak that was here in Seattle from a restaurant that was four-and-a-half-stars on Yelp but had failed five-out-of-six of its restaurant inspections.”

So for the past year and a half, Sarah has been on a quest to get King County to require restaurants to publicly post their health inspection scores.

“I started the petition and we quickly got a couple thousand signatures. By January, King County was talking about making this happen and how they would do that.”

In the nearish future, once they settle on the best system, restaurants will have to post their health inspection score near their front door.
And since they’re still in the planning process, Sarah goes to quite a few Restaurant Reporting Committee meetings to give her input. But recently, a meeting rubbed her the wrong way.

“So at our first meeting I was tweeting key points that came up. That’s sort of normal, I feel like now, in public life. You expect things to be shared on social media and that that’s encouraged. I didn’t know until later that members of the committee, from restaurants, had actually complained about this and said that they wouldn’t participate if I was allowed to tweet. At our next meetings, they actually, on both committees, prohibited any member from using social media during the meeting. A member of the committee turned to me and said, ‘You should know that you can’t tweet anymore. We passed a rule about that.’ I really wanted to be a part of these meetings, it’s so important to me that we get this work done, but I walked out in protest.”

Sarah has gone back, but she’s stopped tweeting so as not to disrupt the progress.

The meetings are public, the hours and agenda are posted online, the media can attend and minutes are publicly posted after. Sarah says she’s never heard of a social media silencing like this one.

“It is unusual. I’ve gone to things like the Tech Committee for the City of Seattle. Their members of their committee are actively tweeting out news. I went to an announcement by the mayor of Seattle and was live tweeting there, everyone in the audience was. So it really felt like normal to participate in a public meeting in that capacity.”

Sarah says she even consulted the ACLU, because she felt her first amendment rights might have been violated.

So I contacted Becky Elias, manager of the food program for King County and Seattle Public Health. She attends every Restaurant Reporting Committee meeting.

“First I would say that it wasn’t a tweet ban.”

Becky says the meetings are public, and media is invited, but they are more like work meetings than traditional council meetings. They break into small groups and brainstorm ideas. The stakeholders, who are mostly restaurant owners, are talking out ideas and learning concepts, not making official statements. So they aren’t comfortable being quoted on social media.

“We ask that out stakeholders identify participation ground rules for the process because we knew we wanted them to be productive, we would be meeting regularly,” explained Becky. “So as the group was developing those ground rules, they also developed one of saying that because the meetings were active working sessions, that there wouldn’t be live tweeting during the meeting itself. Now, that did not preclude, by any means, the participants of the meetings from reaching out to their networks and their communities afterward. We actually really encourage them to do that to spread the word of what was being discussed in the meetings. We posted our meeting notes online.”

Becky agrees it’s important to be transparent, and says they do use social media to get important messages to the public. She thinks the committee and Sarah want the same things.

But this story brings up an interesting question: Just because it is legal, and part of modern everyday life to post everything to social media, does it mean we should always be allowed to do so?

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