Social Media Icons and Users

Social Media Risks for Special Districts

Many Americans use social media to connect with friends, family, and loved ones – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn also provides us with important information about people, events, and news.

Many public entities or officials, including special districts in Colorado, use social media to reach their constituents.

In many ways, social media can be a meaningful and instantaneous way to disseminate important information. However, there are some limitations or complications to the use of social media of which every special district should be aware.

This article provides an overview of some of the practical or legal issues, but please remember that this is not legal advice; as you make your plans, consult with your district’s general counsel on these issues.

Special districts using social media to connect with residents are likely already aware of any internet infrastructure or technology challenges in their area.

The first step in the use of social media for any outreach is to consider if your residents have and will use internet-based social media platforms at all.

Prior to establishing a social media presence, your special district may want to consider adopting its own social media policy to set expectations for how, when, and by whom the special district’s official account may be used.

Having these policies and procedures in place from the start can help your district avoid some of the challenges described below.

Social media presents issues and facts that have not been fully tested by courts, as related to the procedures that a governmental entity must follow and to the First Amendment.

Here are a few issues to consider as your district makes plans to use social media:

  • Open Meetings: If three Directors discuss upcoming Board business on social media (whether on their own official or private accounts, or on the official account of the special district), is there a potential violation of the Colorado Open Meetings Act? Even though the Open Meetings Act does not expressly include social media, social media conversations would likely fall under “other means of communication” under the statute.
  • Open Records: When a special district official or employee posts on social media (or texts) about district business, does that communication constitute the creation of a public record? Many public entities in Colorado are receiving and providing copies for inspection of these types of communication under the Colorado Open Records Act.
  • Public Forum/First Amendment Rights: If a public entity or official edits or removes posted comments, or blocks a user, does that infringe upon the person’s First Amendment rights? Litigation in state and federal courts on these issues has just started over the last few years. So far, courts have come to different conclusions when addressing whether a public forum exists on social media, and whether blocking a person or comment is a violation of First Amendment rights.

Regardless of the legal issues, many public entities choose to limit all comments on their official social media accounts for practical purposes: monitoring content and encouraging civility takes a lot of time and effort.

Social media lets us connect remotely and immediately, and can be a great tool for outreach to your district’s residents.

The CSD Pool plans on offering a webinar on these topics on August 24th, and we encourage our members to discuss these issues with your leadership teams and attorneys to maximize the benefits (and avoid the pitfalls) of social media.

Sign up for our upcoming Social Media webinar.