Protection of individual liberties

The following editorial appeared in The Journal, Martinsburg, on Aug. 19:

Many West Virginians are fiercely protective of our individual liberties, with freedom of speech rightly at the top of most lists. No one is going to tell us what we can and cannot think and say.

Earlier this year the Legislature enacted what has come to be known as “the trinkets law” to prevent local and state officeholders from using public money to buy small gifts such as refrigerator magnets, sports schedules, etc., bearing the officials’ names and often likenesses, and to be handed out to voters.

The Ethics Commission already has issued one questionable opinion on the law. It could limit how private citizens use their money to support — or, conversely, oppose — officeholders running for re-election. That would infringe upon our freedom of speech. Ethics Commission members should revise that ruling.

Now there are questions about how officials can use “social media” such as Facebook, Twitter and the like. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper has asked the commission for an opinion.

Carper wants answers to three questions, in essence. The first is whether the commission can limit how public officials use their personal social media accounts, such as Facebook pages. The second is whether government resources can be used to manage personal Facebook pages. The third is whether government social media sites can be used for purposes such as recognizing business owners or others who do good things for the community.

When any government resource is used, the answers to questions two and three seem obvious. What’s the difference between handing out taxpayer-funded trinkets with officeholders’ names and pictures on them and using public money to send those names and photos out on the Internet? There is very little.

If officials want to use government websites or social media accounts to recognize people in their communities, they’re free to do so with pictures and information about those folks — without including a smiling official/candidate shaking hands with someone.

But as for what authority the commission has over private social media maintained with private money, the answer is unequivocal: None. If an official wants to post a Facebook picture of himself kissing babies — and no public resources whatsoever were used to stage the picture or put it on the Internet — that’s his business and his alone.

It’s called freedom of speech. And here in West Virginia, we still take that seriously.


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