Proposed speech regulations raise councillors’ ire

A proposed operating procedure restricting the social media use of students’ union employees and councillors raised hackles during its presentation last week. Mount Allison Students’ Union (MASU) Vice-President, Communications Matt Ranson unveiled the policy Oct. 21, but councillor objections caused Ranson to withdraw it for revision before it could be moved. The policy would apply to “all MASU employees, including executives, part-time and full-time employees,” as well as “volunteers, commissioners, coordinators, and committee members.”

Ranson said in an Oct. 25 interview that the proposal aimed “to ensure that the mission, vision, and values of the organization are being upheld.”

The most controversial aspect of the document requires the students’ union’s representatives and staff to identify themselves and their “relationship to the MASU … when posting comments or material related to [their responsibilities] with the MASU.” The proposed policy emphasized that it would become “unacceptable to assume an anonymous identity when initiating or responding to a topic related to the MASU.”

The policy is comprehensive, asking representatives to not post outside of their “area of responsibility or expertise,” to present themselves professionally and to not release “sensitive” or “confidential” information.

The policy also states that representatives should not use personal social media accounts to comment on MASU affairs while in council, asking for “separation of personal and work accounts,” and establishing that “MASU social media accounts are property of the MASU.” The scope of the policy lead Councillor Nikki Bhatia to criticize it as “neither specific nor general.”

Councillors Bhatia and James Beirne were the most vocal at the council meeting in their opposition to the policy. During an Oct. 25 interview Beirne said he thought the policy “had good intentions,” and that while he did not “take issue with the majority of it,” he had serious reservations about restricting anonymous online speech.

Bhatia was concerned that the policy would curtail freedom of expression: “Some of the statements as they currently stand in the policy could be interpreted as an infringement on free speech. That may not have been the intention, but it reads that way.”

When Beirne defended the right of MASU employees and representatives to post anonymously should they feel uncomfortable speaking out, Ben Kropp, who is MASU’s ombudsperson, said that “social media isn’t really going to be the most appropriate avenue for that. If you have a question or concern about something that goes on in council, that’s where [the Ombudsperson comes in].”

In an Oct. 24 interview, MASU President Melissa O’Rourke argued that such organizational policies are commonplace, saying their use “is not limited to student organizations.”

O’Rourke said she believed online anonymous statements were unnecessary, saying, “I think that if councillors are doing their jobs effectively, they are going to voice their opposition in council.“

When asked about potential disciplinary action that could be taken if there were to be violations of such a policy, Ranson explained that such action would fall under the Human Resources policy, which is forthcoming under Vice-President, Finance and Operations Josh Outerbridge’s portfolio.

During the council meeting, Ranson cited the “anonymous” MTApathy blog as an specific example of something the policy was trying to prevent. The blog appeared in January 2013.

While the blog does not explicitly reference its author’s name, the blog’s “About” page refers to its author as president in the context of Mount Allison student politics, while billing itself as: “In-depth Mount Allison Students’ Union election coverage, opinions and editorials on student politics, and various knick-knacks from an outgoing student executive.” For his part, then-MASU President Pat Joyce, who left office in April, was not shy about his authorship of the blog.

Ranson who objects to such projects, said, “MTApathy was done as an anonymous identity last year. Pretty obvious who it was, but it didn’t specifically say ‘Hello, this is Patrick Joyce.’ I find it inappropriate to do something like that, it’s inappropriate to badmouth the organization that you are working for.”

Bhatia and Ranson, in conjunction with the Operations Committee, will work together to try and amend the policy to the satisfaction of all councillors. A revised version of the policy is expected at council Nov. 4.

 

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