Facebook: Should Bridgton tap its potential or turn away?

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton Selectman Bernie King, a former Bridgton police officer, wants to block the public from posting any comments on the police department’s enormously popular online Facebook page. If that can’t be done, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, the page ought to be shut down altogether.

“We can be transparent” in communicating with the public, even if the page is “read-only, one-way, with no comments,” King said. “There is a city that did that.”

King said he was referring to the city of Augusta. But Facebook users who search for “Augusta Maine” are taken to an unofficial page created under Facebook’s “Local Business or Place” category (that any user can create), offering information from Wikipedia and a 20-page list of other Augusta-based Facebook pages. The page does not offer comments. Bridgton PD’s Facebook page was created under the “Company, Organization or Institution” category as an officially affiliated “Government Organization” page, which does allow comments.

True crime-fighting tool

Bridgton Police Officer Joshua Muise saw the potential for social media to strengthen the department’s ties to the community when he created the Facebook page three years ago. He said he wanted to be as liberal as possible in allowing residents to make comments about anything, including persons arrested for serious local crimes.

Muise said he has had to permanently ban only around 200 residents to date, and the page now posts 3,274 “fans.” The less that comments have been censored, the more freely they’ve been given, he said; in one case, a posting about a store receipt that someone found allowed him to tie a case together and make an arrest, many months after the crime occurred.

Police Chief Kevin Schofield added himself as a page administrator when he was hired two years ago. Both men keep daily track of the appropriateness of any new comments as they come in, in real time. Having two administrators, however, has allowed some improper comments to slip through the cracks, he said.

A page administrator can ban a fan from making any further comments on the page (by clicking to block them from revisiting) — but only after that first offensive comment has been made. With that one comment, some opponents say, much damage can be done, with innocent family members also impacted through association.

Municipal pages treated differently

In general terms for creating pages, Facebook notes in its “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” that it’s up to the page administrator, and not Facebook, to make sure its users don’t break Free Speech laws by posting “any offensive, inappropriate, obscene, unlawful or otherwise objectionable content or information.”

However, in Facebook’s “Amended Pages Terms” for state and local governments, there’s a sharing of responsibility, whereby Facebook states it “will endeavor to resolve any disputes in an amicable fashion” — presumably, by allowing the “one-way” comments option that the general public doesn’t have.

Facebook requires all page administrators to maintain “Community Standards” against harassment, bullying, threatening, slander, libel or hate speech, saying, “It is a serious violation to attack a person based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.” However, the amended terms make note of the special legal exemption that state and local governments have from liability for damages (in civil rights lawsuits), that other Facebook page creators, such as a newspaper printing a story about an arrest, does not have.

Anne Krieg, Bridgton’s Director of Planning, Community and Economic Development, said the staff committee working on a new Digital Media Policy has been struggling with the need to strike a balance between transparency and upholding a positive image for the town.

“It is a complicated issue because we want the interaction from the citizenry; that’s the point of social media,” Krieg wrote in a memo to the board. Removing inappropriate comments from residents “could be seen as a violation of free speech” since an official Facebook page is a public record and the town must keep public records on file in case of a Freedom of Access request, she said. One work-around might be to print a copy of the page before the comment is removed.

The draft policy stresses the need to “minimize risk to the reputation of our town” and “prevent damage due to confidentiality,” from social media, while also saying that “these technologies should be embraced” because the town feels strongly about citizen involvement, collaboration, transparency and openness.

“We’re struggling with that a little bit,” Krieg said.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz asked for the board’s patience, as social media and government is “such a vibrant issue” right now. The Maine Municipal Association is holding another Freedom of Access Act training program for municipal officials on Feb. 13, he said. As for the police department’s Facebook page, and the debate it has engendered since being brought up by Selectman Bob McHatton a month ago, Berkowitz said “We literally are getting comments daily on this issue.”

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