By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — City council members on Tuesday are set to approve a new social media policy that establishes guidelines and best practices for employees and elected officials. The policy aims to protect the integrity of information posted on social media and content attributed to the city and city officials.

The policy discussion comes on the heels of an August incident in which a city employee removed a comment from Wausau’s official Facebook page, a move that stirred a debate over whether such action is ethical and legal.

In August, Kati Groeschel, executive assistant to Mayor Rob Mielke, told Wausau Pilot and Review that she removed the comment, a response to employment listings, because the words were “clearly off topic and/or disruptive.” Groecshel said the city has a policy about the city Facebook page that states that the city reserves the right to delete such submissions. A social media policy could not be found on the city’s Facebook page immediately after the comment was removed, but was since added.

The content of the removed post was not released, but legal advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union have repeatedly taken a stance and, in some cases, legal action on the behalf of people who have been censored or blocked from posting comments on Facebook pages operated by government entities.

Courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — have weighed in the issue in recent years, increasingly in favor of free speech on government websites.

A draft of the updated policy was discussed during an Oct. 8 meeting of the human resources committee and will be presented Tuesday during the full council meeting for review. In the October meeting, City Attorney Anne Jacobson said the policy was drafted in response to a review of how city social media pages are moderated, how content is presented and how records are retained for open records requests.

Municipalities nationwide are increasingly grappling with how best to manage such platforms while complying with open records laws. For elected officials the issue can be especially complex, as personal Facebook pages and messages can be subject to open records requests if conversations involve city business. Even personal Facebook pages set to “private” are not exempt from open records requests.

The new policy calls for civility and respect, not just for employees and elected officials, but also for users who post comments on official Wausau social media sites. By establishing such a policy, the city can legally remove public comments if they violate standards set by the policy.

Under the new rules, city employees, including elected officials, will be required to act responsibly in their online demeanor, respond honestly to questions and refrain from hostility or argumentative behavior. Elected officials are being strongly encouraged not to interact with one another on social media sites because such communications could constitute a meeting under the state’s open meetings law, which could have legal consequences.

City employees who violate the new rules can face discipline including potential termination, according to city documents. Elected officials, however, cannot be fired.

During the October human resources meeting, Jacobson recommended a social media coordinator be appointed to oversee all city pages. She also recommends the city purchase software to archive social media for efficient handling of open records requests.

View the entire policy here, beginning on page 86.