Public employees and public officials have a lot more of their lives on display than most private citizens. The documents they produce at their job can become public records. Emails from their official work account can be sought in open record requests. Their salary is often published in governmental manuals and “watchdog” databases.
That said, they can use a non-official email like Gmail for their non-work communication and that information is as private for them as it is for anyone else. The same is true for the personal documents they create at home.
What sits in between these public and private demarcations is a fuzzy, messy gray area and social media sits right in the middle of it.
For public officials, social media has become an integral part of daily life in reaching out to their constituents and discussing important issues with the public. The president has more than 36 million followers on Twitter and his tweets have been the subject of many news stories over the first nine months of his administration. Facebook pages often run a that quasi-official line between personal information and political wrangling. However, these accounts are not “official” in the same way a .gov email address or a state paycheck would be.
Dee Hall from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism takes a deeper look at how the courts have ruled on these issues of a politician’s right to “block” users or to use social media in official capacities. (Disclosure: I worked with Dee and her husband, Andy, at the State Journal for several years and still see them from time to time at journalism functions. Also, Andy once got me to cover his shift and report on a high school graduation with the promise of a six-pack of beer from Indiana and a bucket of Tell City Pretzels. Not sure if that matters, but better to say it than not, I s’pose.)
The question is a good one: If you’re using something as a public official, should you have the right to shield its use from certain members of the public? The courts have almost famously been behind the curve in terms of dealing with technological advances, but as we see social media continue to become an almost preferred form of political communication, it will need to catch up in a hurry. Otherwise, the first filter on what we learn from our leaders will be whether or not they let us “like” or “follow” them.