Elected officials should proceed with caution when using social media, which is further blurring the line between their public and private lives.
That's the advice Simi Valley Councilman Glen Becerra gave to fellow Councilman Mike Judge, who has been criticized, but also defended, for posting racy and violent content on his personal Facebook page. The content has since been removed by Judge and Facebook.
"When we ran to get elected, we gave up our privacy," Becerra said at a council meeting last month. "That's the reality of the world we live in. At some point, your life is not your own. It's this community's.
"We like to think that we have our First Amendment rights -- and we do. But we also have the right to be kicked in the teeth for these First Amendment rights if we make choices that some would say are brave and some would say are disgusting."
In today's tech world, politicians, professional athletes, corporate executives and others often use social media to communicate directly to the public, rather than rely on the traditional media to get their message out.
Former Ventura City Manager Rick Cole was an early adopter when he began blogging around 2007.
"I didn't feel we could rely on the press to always have the room for a more nuanced and detailed explanation for what are often decisions that they walk in on in the third act," he said.
California Lutheran University political science professor Jose Marichal, whose first book, "Facebook Democracy," was published last year, said 25 members of Congress he researched use the popular social media site to market themselves as "ordinary Joes and Janes."
"On their Facebook pages, they're offering their opinions on current events, rooting for their favorite football team, as if they were just any other person because they want to create that sense of Everyman," Marichal said. "You're one of the people, you can relate to your constituents.
"But if they're too familiar and too comfortable, then they run the risk of providing their opponents with fodder."
Marichal cited Anthony Weiner, the former Democratic congressman from New York who resigned in 2011 after a Twitter sexting scandal, and to a lesser degree, Judge.
"I think those are instances of public officials who have difficulty telling the difference between their online and offline selves," said Marichal, stressing that his knowledge of the Judge controversy is limited to news accounts.
TREAD WITH CAUTION
Ventura County Democratic Party Chairman David Atkins on May 7 called for the resignation of Judge, a Republican, for his "vile" Facebook content, including a graphic video of a woman being beheaded apparently in Mexico, and Judge's Facebook "likes" of sexually oriented pages such as "Hot Chicks With Abs."
Atkins said he did so in response to complaints from residents of Simi Valley and elsewhere.
Some residents, however, rallied to Judge's side at a May 13 council meeting, labeling Atkins' remarks politically motivated and hypocritical, considering his own sometimes-controversial social media content.
In 2011, Atkins, then the local party's vice chairman, tweeted that some east county Republicans who testified at a redistricting hearing in Oxnard should "just put your white hoods on already." That drew a rebuke from then-Democratic Party Chairman Richard Carter.
Judge, a Los Angeles Police Department officer, said he posted the beheading footage for his Facebook law enforcement friends. He also has no intention of resigning.
However, he said he would be more cautious from now on -- "I have been schooled in the uses of Facebook."
Marichal said he can sympathize with Judge.
"There's something to that argument," he said, referring to Judge's explanation that he considered his postings a private matter separate from his public duties.
Local public officials tend to be "citizen legislators who are most likely to still see themselves as private citizens, rather than professional politicians, serving for a short period of time," Marichal said. "So maybe he's learning the transition from being a citizen to being a public official."
Because public officials are scrutinized more closely than ordinary citizens, they need to be considerably more cautious when using social media, Cole said.
"As Anthony Weiner and Mike Judge have discovered, it's very difficult to keep anything on social media secret. All of us human beings have reasonably safe places to be ourselves. But social media isn't one of them," he said with a laugh.
Cole said he used to tell city staff that "the question for any action they took was how would they feel about defending it on the front page of the newspaper?
"And that obviously applies to social media. Fairly or not, there are those of us in public service that are held to a higher standard of scrutiny."
Michael Berman, vice president for technology and communication at CSU Channel Islands, said Simi Valley voters will be the final arbiters of Judge's now-removed Facebook content.
"I think if you're an elected official, the people who elect you can decide how important it is, what they think is proper, and what they think is improper," Berman said.
He pointed to first-time Glendale City Council candidate Zareh Sinanyan who this year was accused of posting anti-gay, anti-Muslim and other slurs on YouTube and Facebook several years ago.
Sinanyan said the comments didn't reflect his beliefs, and he was elected in April. Weiner recently announced he was running for New York City mayor.
Prompted by the Judge episode, the Simi Valley/Moorpark Democratic Club is sponsoring a forum on elected officials' use of social media at 7:30 p.m. June 19 at the Simi Valley Town Center community room, 1555 Simi Town Center Way.
"Some of our members didn't necessarily agree with the attacks on Mike Judge because they did support his right to free speech and his right to post anything he wanted on his own private Facebook page," said Carter, who is president of the Democratic Club. He noted the forum will be a broad discussion on the issue.
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