UPDATE, MAR. 1, 4:00 P.M.: The Orange County District Attorney’s office adopted a new social media policy today following the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California’s letter last month accusing the agency of first amendment violations for deleting critical comments and blocking users. The civil liberties group gave the OCDA a Mar. 7 deadline to respond. “The OCDA researched the law relating to social media [and] determined the ACLU brought forward a valid point,” the agency’s press release read.
Initial comments from the OCDA brushed off the accusations of illegally suppressing free speech and limiting public access to government information. Instead, the agency claimed the ACLU “routinely attacks” them because of their criminal prosecution of gang members and sex offenders. But in a concession, they put forth new guidelines for their social media sites on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
“This site is intended for the benefit of its users, and any inappropriate or offensive material will detract from its purpose,” the policy reads. “This is a moderated online discussion site and the OCDA will restrict any information that would compromise the privacy, safety, and security of the public, the County, or the users of this site.” Deeming its social media presence a “limited public forum,” the OCDA introduced a laundry list of no-nos. Comments that constitute a threat against a person, advertising of a business, are discriminatory, off-topic or spam will be subject to review to name a few. Oh, and the OCDA also says no nudes, please!
The agency also offers a disclaimer. “Comments made through the OCDA online locations will in no way constitute a legal or official notice or comment by the OCDA, or any official or employee of the OCDA, for any purpose,” the policy reads. Interested folks can read the rest of it in its entirety online.
And with that, DA Tony Rackauckas avoids Facebook jail, for now.
ORIGINAL POST, FEB. 26, 6:30 A.M.: Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is becoming more social media savvy with news conferences broadcast on Facebook live and press releases tweeted out from a spiffy account. Saddled with scandals, such online accessibility also allows detractors a direct path to telling T-Rack what’s really on their mind about his office–or is supposed to. On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California took the OCDA’s office to task for treating the public like trolls.
“We are deeply concerned by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office’s illegal suppression of free speech on its official Facebook and Twitter pages,” staff attorney Brendan Hamme wrote Rackauckas. “We strongly urge your office to cease its unconstitutional censorship.” The civil liberties group pointed to a Sept. 13 news conference broadcast on Facebook live where Rackauckas refuted the critical findings of a Harvard-commissioned study that highlighted pervasive prosecutorial misconduct under his watch.
“How do you respond to the California Court of Appeals finding that…’the OCDA on its own violated targeted defendants’ constitutional rights through its CI program?” one person commented. “What about their conclusion that the magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked?” Despite being on-topic and asked in a polite manner, the OCDA’s social media handlers deleted the comment and blocked another critical Facebook user hours later. At the same time, praise remained untouched. “You are doing a great job, court of appeals got it wrong and the grand jury was right that there was no informant program,” another comment still reads.
The ACLU’s letter got the Weekly to thinking. When the OCDA held an October news conference clearing Orange police in the fatal shooting death of Michael Perez, his relatives left angry comments on the Facebook live broadcast in real time disputing the office’s investigatory findings–including a contention that Perez complied with police orders to drop his knife by saying “Alright.” The OCDA page administrator responded to other critical comments left on the live-stream. Returning to the archived Facebook video now, all real time comments have been wiped clean, save for the OCDA’s own comment leaving links to its report and related video footage on YouTube.
In its letter, the civil liberties group also documents an instance where the OCDA blocked people from their official Twitter account just for tweeting at Rackauckas with on-topic, critical comments. What’s the trouble? The ACLU cites case law and accuses the OCDA of discriminating against commentators’ protected free speech based on their viewpoints. Blocking is also a big no-no in terms of violating public access to information about their government at work.
“These are not matters involving sensitive information where the government might have a significant interest in restricting or foreclosing access to information,” Hamme wrote. “You are restricting some people from accessing information that you have voluntarily chosen to share broadly through social media.”
The agency doesn’t seem tooconcerned. “The ACLU routinely attacks the Orange County District Attorney’s Office due to our aggressive pursuit of sexual offenders and gang members,” OCDA spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden writes the Weekly in an email. “The OCDA remains committed to the business of putting criminals behind bars and keeping our residents, visitors, and members of the business community safe.”
Given the nature of the ACLU’s accusations of first amendment violations, they’ve given the OCDA until Mar. 7 to respond to them directly. “The right to receive information from the government is critical,” Hamme wrote. “You cannot constitutionally provide information to only those who flatter you.”
Oh, T-Rack…you didn’t think the public only heaped uncritical praise about your office online, now did you?