Jefferson County approves updated social media policy

PORT TOWNSEND — The Board of Jefferson County commissioners approved an updated social media policy, updating oversight controls and policies regarding Facebook comments being filtered.

The unanimous decision was made during their Monday meeting, stemming from a settlement reached with a county resident in May that required revisions to the policy after some of his comments were deleted and he was blocked from commenting on the county’s Facebook page.

The resident, Jim Scarantino, sued for First Amendment violations.

Some residents had called for — and the commissioners were eyeing — whether to discontinue two-way communication with the county’s Facebook page and other county-run social media. However, Veronica Shaw, county public health deputy director, spoke with the commissioners Monday regarding the importance of the back-and-forth communication for the public health department.

The ability to communicate and answer questions is a point of equity and access for Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH), as some of their clients can’t afford other ways of communicating, such as cellphone minutes, but they can utilize free WiFi in the county to message the department via their Facebook and Instagram pages, Shaw said.

The department has been operating the social media page for longer than the Jefferson County, Wa Government page, from which Scarantino’s complaints arose, with oversight policies already in place, that had the account manager required to discuss a possible comment deletion/hiding with their supervisor and keep a record of it, Shaw said.

“We have always allowed comments, and to be required to cease two-way communication would be a significant change, raise trust questions and be detrimental to the purposes for which we use social media,” Vicki Kirkpatrick, public health director, said in prepared statements for Monday’s meeting.

“JCPH has always used our (Facebook) and Instagram accounts as an interactive tool. I would argue that one of the best uses is that it’s interactive.”

In the updated policy, the account manager for the county’s social media will not be allowed to restrict someone from commenting and interacting with the county’s page unless the Central Services Director approves of it, and that is only after the director considers the legality of the restriction, whether other actions can be taken instead of restricting, if restricting that person would be viewpoint discrimination, and if it is deemed appropriate to restrict someone, the county must document it.

Comments that can be hidden include commercial promotions, solicitations or spam, as well as comments that have an external link that may contain malicious malware or computer viruses, the policy said.

Scarantino’s lawsuit was filed in November in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington after Scarantino realized he was unable to post comments on Nov. 11, and that a comment he wrote on Sept. 10 on a COVID-19 post was deleted, according to court documents.

As part of the settlement, the county had to implement more oversight on the account management and update the policy so comments wouldn’t be restricted without good cause.

Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Philip Hunsucker said during Monday’s discussion he believes the updated policy now meets those requirements.

The updated policy and Monday’s discussion can be viewed at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-JeffCoSM.

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Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected]

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