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Accused of deleting Facebook comments, Southold Town to evaluate social media policy

When Southold Town created a Facebook account earlier this year, the intent was to provide information to residents in a more efficient way.

But now officials are facing scrutiny for reportedly removing comments from the social media site.

During a work session Tuesday, Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said she’s heard from several people who’ve had their comments deleted from posts on the town’s official page.

“We do have to be careful with this because it is a violation of First Amendment rights,” Ms. Nappa said. “Social media is covered under freedom of speech for governments.”

At a January work session, board members went back and forth about the idea to allow commenting on the platform and ultimately agreed not to allow them.

Officials realized after setting up the page that there’s no sweeping setting to turn all commenting off. 

Lloyd Reisenberg, the town’s IT director, said the page went live amid the coronavirus pandemic to help get information out to the public. 

“At the time I thought we could turn off comments, that’s not the case,” Mr. Reisenberg said due to changes in Facebook’s terms. 

He said he’s been moderating the page and deleting comments as he sees them, which raised concerns among board members.

“We can’t have somebody determining which comments go through and which don’t,” Ms. Nappa said. “The page does show positive comments, so it appears to the public that we’re allowing positive comments to go through, but not negative comments or even discussion.”

Mr. Reisenberg said he wasn’t taking sides and was deleting the comments based on what he understood the policy of the board to be.

“It’s not a positive, not a negative. It comes off the minute I see it,” he said.

The issue of moderating a Facebook account puts the town in a legal gray area. There have been dozens of well-documented instances where public officials and municipalities have faced lawsuits over deleting comments, citing a breach of First Amendment protections.

Town attorney Bill Duffy weighed in on the issue, noting that there was a misunderstanding over whether comments could be shut off. 

“We can’t be deleting comments,” he said.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the challenge was unanticipated and comments weren’t being deleted for nefarious reasons. 

“Once they’re posted, we can’t delete them,” he said. “They’re part of the public record at that point.” 

Officials agreed that the board should draft a social media policy to set groundrules for commenters. Permitted restrictions would likely include using profanity or abusive language or other obscene, threatening content that violate guidelines in place by Facebook.

Mr. Reisenberg said moderating the page is a 24/7 commitment, prompting Councilman Bob Ghosio to wonder if running the page is worth the extra effort. 

“We don’t need to have an interactive page to disseminate information about what’s going on,” he said. “You can already go to our web page to get information.”

Ms. Nappa argued that scrapping the page isn’t the way to go. 

“This is the way the world is going,” she said, noting that most companies and even some municipalities have social media departments that handle these issues.

Mr. Duffy said he plans to communicate with other towns and draft policy that will mirror theirs. 

“We could learn from them,” he said.