Integrity commissioner clarifies social media restrictions for council
By Sue Tiffin
Highlands East has received clarification from the integrity commissioner regarding critical comments of government and politicians on social media that was dividing the council.
The Code of Conduct which includes social media policy use, was first approved at a Feb. 12 regular meeting of council, but amendments were made to the bylaw after the integrity commissioner was consulted by county clerks.
One of those amendments was in section 14.3, where the Code of Conduct first noted members of council or committees must refrain from posting content which a) violates the Criminal Code of Canada or the Ontario Human Rights Code; b) proprietary and confidential municipal information; c) and discriminatory, disrespectful, disparaging, negative statements about the municipality, a staff member, member of the public or council member.
The amended code added political parties, other levels of government, its officials or representatives to that list of people in section C.
In a recorded vote on March 26, Mayor Dave Burton and councillors Cam McKenzie and Ruth Strong voted to approve the amendments, while Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall and Councillor Suzanne Partridge voted no, citing unreasonable restrictions related to being able to comment on political parties, other levels of government, its officials or representatives.
Though the amendments were approved, Highlands East clerk Robyn Rogers sought clarification from H.G. Elston, integrity commissioner, regarding the wording of the section, who responded by writing:
“A proper interpretation and application of policy 14.3 c) requires that the meaning of the policy be understood from a reading of the entire policy, and giving its words their common, everyday meaning.From that, it is clear that the prohibitions in 14.3 are meant to address profoundly incorrect, even criminal behaviour.
“With respect to policy 14.3 c) in particular, it characterizes the tone of the language to be avoided as ‘discriminatory, disrespectful, disparaging, and negative’; descriptors which will only apply to statements on social media which will be readily and commonly understood to be highly improper.
“To look at it another way, policy 14.3 and sub-policy 14.3 c) serve merely to confirm and codify the existing social conventions and legal prohibitions against making defamatory-like statements about any member of the greater community. The specific reference to political parties and their representatives acknowledges only that members of council operate in a political environment and may, from time to time, feel the need to make public comments about politicians from other levels of government or groups. In my opinion, it is not the intent of the policy to curtail the free and fair expression of opinions or commentary, but only to ensure that it is conducted in a civil manner.
“Of course, any complaint about a particular social media post will have to be reviewed independently and on its facts. That said, if it is any comfort, I do not interpret policy 14.3 c) as constituting any kind of a ‘gag’ order on members of council vis-à-vis statements they may wish to make about other politicians or political parties, but only as a reminder that any social media post which is critical of another should, at the same time, be delivered in a respectful and fair manner.”
“If we had to get interpretation, why don’t they just word it so it’s understandable,” said Partridge. “It needs clarity.”
Ryall said he didn’t have an interest in criticizing political parties, but: “If someone were to turn around and increase or decrease the funding for something, that’s a policy decision ... and that’s a situation where I want to be able to say, I don’t agree with that.”
“And you can, as long as it’s respectful,” said Rogers.
“That’s not how it came across,” said Ryall.
“So we don’t say, they’re idiots, which is what you might want to say,” said Partridge.
“Unfortunately being a member of government, a politician yourself, you tend to get zoned in a little more than perhaps a regular individual in public so you have to curtail or be a little bit more cautious, I guess,” said Rogers.
“So say what you think, but not really what you think,” said Burton.
Elston was hired in December to act as integrity commissioner for the county and its lower-tier townships, as per provincial legislation.