Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Metro Nashville Council looks to silence Twitter at meetings

By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • February 17, 2010 A social networking service that's often credited for creating greater openness may not always be open enough to meet Tennessee's standards for local governments, Metro Council's attorney said Tuesday. Jon Cooper said council members should refrain from using Twitter during meetings to discuss bills under debate or other members' comments. Doing so could violate the state Open Meetings Act, which prohibits deliberations by public officials out of public view and often is interpreted broadly by courts, Cooper said. "If you tweet during a council meeting about what's going on, that could be problematic," he said, using the newly created verb for posting a comment or information on the service, which limits each post to 140 characters. Cooper said he sees no problem, however, with council members giving "play-by-play" of votes after they're over. Only a few council members use Twitter during meetings, but two of them said the decision was misguided. After Erik Cole mentioned the issue on his "district7" Twitter feed Tuesday and announced, "no more tues night tweets," fellow councilman Jamie Hollin replied, "Don't quit now @district7. I think that's a bit overbroad." Cole later wrote back, "Agreed. Overbroad ... or overboard?" Decision draws criticism In a telephone interview, Hollin said he disagreed with the decision and had told Cooper so. "Using Twitter as a tool to communicate principally with your constituents, I don't think that's a violation of the Open Meetings Act," said Hollin, an attorney. "I don't think you can blame a member, with the tools at their disposal, for getting all the information out there that they can." Freddie O'Connell, an Internet entrepreneur and Metro Transit Authority member who often uses Twitter to keep tabs on council meetings, said the decision seemed odd. He noted that council members routinely talk privately to each other and even to citizens during the course of meetings. "It's curious that something that distributes information about what's happening could be construed as a violation of openness," he said. "What's the difference between that and somebody coming off the floor and talking to a citizen?" Guidance for state legislators has been less direct. Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration, said lawmakers are aware of the Open Meetings Act, and "we assume they are acting accordingly." The state attorney general's office hasn't issued any opinions on Twitter use by elected officials, spokeswoman Sharon Curtis-Flair said. Florida's attorney general, Bill McCollum, wrote an opinion last year that said members of city boards and commissions shouldn't discuss issues that could come before them for action on city Facebook pages. McCollum's office told the Naples Daily News that the same tests for determining what is a public record would apply to Twitter or any other medium. Follow Michael Cass' abundant tweeting from Metro Council meetings and elsewhere at Or contact him at 615-259-8838.

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