Public Employment and Private Messages

A reader asks:

Is a sitting Congressman’s Twitter (or other social networking account) his or her own private property even when used for official communication? With respect to Rep. Weiner, he used his Twitter account for both personal and official communication. Could his tweets be a misappropriation of government resources? Obviously, if he had used a government Email account to send the same pictures, it would be a clear ethical violation, but does Twitter use rise to the same level?

I’m not up on the details of the various rules related to federal employees’ and officeholders’ use of government property. But my inclination is to say that it’s a mistake to frame this as a question of whether the Twitter account is Rep. Wiener’s “own private property.”

Rather, the question is what kind of personal uses of whatever government property was involved (e.g., any government-issued computers, iPhones, etc.) are customarily allowed. Generally speaking, I suspect that some such incidental uses are usually allowed; a government employee is free to make a reasonable amount of personal phone calls from his office phone. Nor do I think that the fact that this is sexually themed changes the analysis; for instance, I don’t think that it would be at all “a clear ethical violation” for someone to call his wife or girlfriend on his government phone, even if the conversation turned to sex.

My inclination is to say that the same is true as to the Twitter account, unless there was some specific language in the computer use policies that prohibited certain uses. And I doubt there is such language; though many computer use policies ban accessing pornography from government computers, I doubt that the sexually themed material at issue in this case — or at least the famous crotch shot — would qualify as pornography.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes