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Oswego School District 308 Facing Questions over Deleted Facebook Comments

Mar 29, 2015 07:24PM ● Published by Steven Jack

Parents who have recently taken to the Oswego School District 308 Facebook page to question the district on a number of issues have found their comments deleted from the page, and some have been banned from the page altogether.

In the age of social media, governmental bodies deleting negative comments from their official Facebook pages is nothing new. However, the District 308 Facebook page lacks a policy statement detailing what kind of comments are and are not allowed. Such a policy could justify the deletion of comments in violation.

Over the course of the past two weeks, deleted comments collected by Only Oswego have ranged from a question over the change of the district's name to others wanting answers regarding district expenditures. Repeated emails and phone calls to the District 308 administration for comment and a copy of an internal or external Facebook policy have not been returned. 

Contacted last week, School Board President Bill Walsh said to his knowledge the district does not have a commenting policy, but rather operates off of a set of “guiding principles.”

“There are no policies or procedures in place at the moment, and we will have to develop one for all social media sites in short order,” Walsh said. “There are guiding principles such as not allowing inflammatory comments, comments that attack individuals or comments that are detrimental to the district."

Walsh said recent comments that make “political statements” also have been removed. 

When asked who within in the district is tasked with determining which comments violate those guiding principles, Walsh said he did not know. 

One parent who has had several comments deleted recently and also was banned from commenting further is Meredith Deleo. She had taken to the Facebook page to question expenditures on a national award received by the district for budget reporting.  

Deleo said she is disappointed the district hasn’t been able to use its Facebook page to create an open dialogue with parents.

“I’m frustrated that I can’t go into this open forum and have the ability to speak my mind or even ask a question,” she said. “I’m not some crotchety old woman who is always criticizing the district. In fact, I’ve stood up for the district when it wasn’t popular. This just saddens me.”

In one previous official complaint of a public body in Illinois deleting Facebook comments, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office ruled deleted comments do not constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act. However, deleting comments may run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, says one Chicago First Amendment attorney.

“If the district is leaving favorable comments and deleting unfavorable ones, that’s a pretty clear violation of the First Amendment,” said Matt Topic with the firm of Lovey and Lovey. “They can’t discriminate solely based on a person’s viewpoint. This certainly opens them up to civil First Amendment claims.”

Walsh said he and Superintendent Matthew Wendt have agreed that developing a public policy for all social media sites is important. The School Board’s Policy Committee will begin the work in the coming weeks, Walsh said.

That policy is something that school public relations experts agree is essential. Kitty Porterfield and Meg Carnes are authors of the book Why Social Media Matters, which is made available through the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.

“Establishing and publicizing consistent guidelines for how items will be hidden is important,” the authors write. 

The book also cautions against a commenting policy that would negatively impact transparency. 

“Most (social media) administrators do not hide comments such as, ‘I do not like the new plan for kindergarten orientation’ simply for being negative,” the book says. “Hiding critical comments violates open discussion and calls into question the transparency of the school or district. Hiding comments that are defamatory or lewd, or violate and individual's privacy, however, is well within the guidelines of acceptable use.”

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