Pitt Meadows council has adopted a new social media policy that one councillor says infringes on his right to freedom of expression.
Coun. Bill Dingwall, a retired RCMP superintendent, warned council that a majority of four members of council cannot override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Under the bylaw, council will decide whether an online posting by its members constitutes damage to the city or council’s reputation. Dingwall said politics could enter council’s decisions.
“This body is not neutral, you can tell by the conversations” he added.
“The courts ultimately define harm to a reputation, and it’s not up to city council to do that.”
Dingwall said that over the past six months there have been several efforts to limit freedom of speech. At that point, Mayor John Becker ruled him out of order, saying “please stick to the motion.”
Dingwall said that, in the political forum, dissenting opinions should be encouraged.
“The policy, in my view, goes too far,” said Dingwall.
Mayor Becker prefaced the debate by saying the policy was deemed necessary because of Facebook comments made by members of the previous council, which some councillors felt were inappropriate and reflected poorly on council as a whole.
Coun. Janice Elkerton said businesses, corporations, non-profit organizations and other municipalities have social media policies, so they can expect good behaviour from the members of their organizations. These were used in writing the Pitt Meadows policy.
She characterized the policy as promoting “common courtesy.”
The policy is intended to reduce trolling in social media, said Coun. Bruce Bell.
“For me, this is really about bullying,” said Coun. Bruce Bell, saying “keyboard cowards” have taken anonymous shots at him.
“I have no problem with people making comments, but be respectful. But they don’t.”
According to a staff report, the policy is intended to offer clear guidelines on social media use for council members.
The policy says councillors will be held accountable for on and off-duty conduct on social media sites if in negatively impacts the city.
“If online posts are found to constitute harassment, or have potentially negative consequences for the city, consideration will be made on a case-by-case basis by forwarding inflammatory posts to the city’s human resources and communication department and/or the RCMP for possible investigation and action,” reads the policy.
Responding to Bell, Coun. Tracy Miyashita said that she was disappointed when a respectful workplace policy proposed by she and Dingwall was rejected by council as a whole.
Miyashita said she has generally used social media to engage the public, but has curtailed those efforts because she does not want to run afoul of council’s new rules.
She called it a “paralyzing and limiting” policy.
Miyashita suggested council revisit the policy in six months, and that was supported by council.
After the meeting, Dingwall said he will consider bringing the policy before the provincial ombudsman.
“I’m very concerned about what took place,” he said. “Elected people are expected to have opinions, and expected to debate.
“People shouldn’t be afraid of commentary that is counter to their own,” said Dingwall.
Becker, who is a lawyer in his professional life, is confident council has not passed a policy that is stifling freedom of expression.
“It’s pretty middle of the road,” he said. “It has been distilled from a number of other policies.”
He said a scheduled review should alleviate concerns.
“If it doesn’t work, we’ll bring it back and change it.”