This sign on a washroom at the Chilliwack school board office was ripped down after the Jan. 15 meeting. (Submitted)

COLUMN: Should elected officials block constituents and reporters on social media?

Ottawa mayor was sued for doing that but a Chilliwack school trustee didn’t get that message

Should a politician block critics, citizens, constituents, on social media?

Should they block reporters who write about the words and actions of those elected officials to help inform the community what is going on?

Late last year, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson faced a lawsuit from three residents who were blocked by him on Twitter.

The citizens argued that the mayor uses his Twitter account for public purposes in his role as an elected official, and citizens have a right to read what he says and respond in any way they please.

Watson disagreed: “I have the right not to be attacked and harassed by the same individuals on a regular basis.”

• READ MORE: Test case challenges a politician’s right to block people from Twitter account

Here in Chilliwack the issue of social media use and abuse, trolling and blocking, online harassing and critiquing has come up again and again.

Former Mayor Sharon Gaetz frequently blocked people on Facebook while she was mayor. But some of her detractors were not only not offering up constructive criticism or even mature criticism, they were vitriolic and ignorant.

Gaetz eventually stopped using Facebook as the mayor. Some criticized her for this but when ad hominem attacks are rained down upon you on an optional social media platform, it’s hard to be bothered to continue with it.

It was understandable. I’ve seen the trolls first hand and believe me, they are ugly.

As for our current local politicians, almost all are on Facebook and Twitter at this time as far as I know. Looking beyond our MP, our two MLAs, city hall, it’s the school board where things have become toxic and divisive over these last 14 months or so. That’s about when Trustee Barry Neufeld began his year of saying not nice things about those in the LGBTQ community and their allies. It’s been a year of toxicity from some of his vocal supporters that began with his online rant prefaced with: “At the risk of being labelled a bigoted homophobe…”

Neufeld’s Facebook posts became increasingly uncivil and eventually, recently, he seems to have left the platform.

His most ardent defender on school board, Heather Maahs, is on Facebook and Twitter, social media platforms she uses to talk about education issues, particularly her interest in the subject of the phonics approach to reading.

She has also been involved in the controversy over the anti-bullying SOGI 123 learning resource used across the province by teachers to help LGBTQ kids facing difficult times in school.

And she’s also been criticized by many in the “inclusion” community because she has blocked them on Twitter.

”Heather Maahs I’m a parent of a child attending public school in Chilliwack,” Tweeted Anne Lamont Key on Jan. 16. “I have never spoken to you in person or on social media. Why have you blocked me on Twitter?”

That same day, Ms. Maahs blocked me on Twitter after I asked her whether it was true that she ripped down the “Gender Neutral Restroom” sign on a washroom at the school district office after the Jan. 15 meeting.

I asked her again directly on Facebook, she responded somewhat ambiguously, implying that she did do it. Then blocked me there, too.

“Unauthorized signage placed without permission is called defacing public property,” she wrote.

Is it right that a school trustee should block parents and voters and citizens on Twitter? I don’t have a concrete answer but it occurs to me that they should not.

Since I don’t know what she is saying on Twitter or Facebook anymore, I’m not sure her rationale for blocking parents in the district, including me. But presumably the argument would follow the Mayor Watson line that she shouldn’t have to put up with being harassed on social media by members of the public.

At least I hope it is not because she doesn’t want to engage with parents or have discussions or accept criticism over her decisions, her actions and her words.

Back to that lawsuit against the mayor of Ottawa. In early November, Watson had a change of heart, a reversal of opinion called “a victory for free speech” by his accusers.

The mayor unblocked his detractors on Twitter. He also encouraged all members of city council to do the same to “maintain a high level of public accessibility through social media and other means.”

The three who sued Watson said his decision will send “a strong message to elected officials from coast to coast to coast.”

Sorry, that message must have been blocked by the Rocky Mountains, it didn’t make it to this coast.

• RELATED: Politicians need to do better on social media, Trudeau says


@PeeJayAitch
paul.henderson@theprogress.com

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