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Facebook flap sparks LCDA action
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The Liberty County Development Authority likes to be “liked.”

That’s the consensus the authority board came to Monday when it adopted a policy to govern its social networking presence. The topic arose after a citizen last week attempted to share a link to a controversial blog on the Courier’s site that questions how LCDA staff spends the entity’s money.

John Spradley, a Hinesville business owner who has sought public office in the past, posted a blog titled “Would you like to see what the LCDA has been charging?” on Jan. 16.

In the blog, he shared a link to a PDF file that contains multiple years’ American Express statements he obtained from the LCDA using an open records request. The blog, which received 2,816 views and 21 comments, ignited a thread of comments about how frequently the staff members travel, where they stay and which places they purchase food and beverages from.

But when Spradley posted a link to the blog on the LCDA’s Facebook page on Thursday afternoon, it was removed within minutes, he said. So he tried to post it again, and again it was removed.

After speaking with staff members at the LCDA, Spradley notified the Courier about the situation and inquired about the legality of a taxpayer-funded entity censoring his message, which he feels is an infringement upon his First Amendment right.

“It frustrates me that they have the gall to censor the public …,” he said. “When you’re a government entity, you don’t have that choice.”

Shortly after his call, the Facebook page had been removed. After his posts were deleted and commenting was disabled, Spradley posted another blog about the incident, titled “LCDA Censors Facebook!”

LCDA CEO Ron Tolley said he and the entity’s marketing director, Anna Chafin, who handles the site’s social networking, decided together to remove the posts to the page, and then consulted with LCDA attorney Kelly Davis before removing the page.

“There still are First Amendment concerns for any social media platform which the government intentionally makes use of, but there’s nothing to preclude the government from disallowing all comments, which was, in effect, what the authority did,” Davis said. “They didn’t intentionally mean to create any kind of forum, but when they found out that people were making comments, some of them defamatory, they elected to shut down the site.”

Given the authority’s mission, which is to attract business and economic development to the area, Facebook may not be an appropriate marketing tool, he said. It’s something the board — and other government entities — will have to assess over time.

“I think the authority’s intent … is purely more of information, they simply want to convey their message. Of course, they don’t intend to abridge the rights of anyone else to make statements, but if the two competing interests can’t coexist, then the authority is within its right to restrict communications within the media that it can control,” Davis said.

But, he added, the relationship between government communications online and the First Amendment is an emerging area with little case precedent, but rather governed by jurisprudence, or legal theory.

During the board discussion on the policy, Tolley said the staff was no longer comfortable using social network sites without having an approved protocol in place, and that because neither he nor Chafin use the site personally, they were not fully aware of how it functions — and the number of forums it can create — when they launched the LCDA page about two months ago.

After discussion, the board approved the policy, with a verbal agreement that staff inform board members if conflicts or issues arise.

The policy states that “all third-party advertisements, including links to personal blogs, are to be disabled on any official social media site or tool,” and allows site  administrators to remove comments if they “include third-party advertisements (or) compromise the LCDA’s business development and marketing purposes.”

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