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Managing the Message: Municipalities face legal considerations on social media use

For all its benefits in communicating with residents, there are also legal implications for a municipality’s activity on social media.

“The First Amendment is in play here and every government entity needs to think through carefully what it seeks to do, and do that in consultation with the borough solicitor,” said Tom Place, a professor at Penn State Dickinson School of Law.

Those issues have come into focus as President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter has mixed official statements with policy initiatives and attacks on those who oppose him.

Last year, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that defends freedom of speech and press in the digital age, called on the president to unblock Twitter users who they said had been blocked because of their views.

The institute said Trump uses the social media service to share his thoughts and decisions in his role as president, and millions of people respond to those posts, ask questions and sometimes receive a response.

“This Twitter account operates as a ‘designated public forum’ for First Amendment purposes, and accordingly the viewpoint-based blocking of our clients is unconstitutional,” the institute wrote in the letter.

By creating that public forum, the institute said Trump could not “constitutionally exclude individuals on the basis of viewpoint.” The institute maintains that blocking users on Twitter suppresses free speech since the users can no longer follow the president on the platform. It also limits their ability to view Trump’s tweets, search for them or learn what accounts follow him.

The institute also acknowledges that “the government may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions in a designated public forum, but it may not exclude people simply because it disagrees with them.”

Carlisle Borough and Lower Allen Township, which both have active Facebook pages, have policies that restrict commenters from making personal attacks and using profanity. Carlisle’s posted policy also bans spam, advocating illegal activity or compromising safety, among other considerations.

Stephanie Taylor, public information coordinator for Carlisle, said she takes screenshots of the comments violating the policy before deleting them. Tom Vernau, township manager in Lower Allen Township, said he warns offenders before deleting comments on additional violations.

Still, those solutions could find the municipalities in legal trouble.

“Anytime a government agency limits the right to speak, it creates constitutional issues, and such limitations face significant scrutiny in the courts,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel, Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Because the constitution applies to government regulation of speech online and offline, members of the public have brought lawsuits as a result of government-imposed restrictions, she said.

In 2016, the Indianapolis Star reported that two women sued the City of Beech Grove in Indiana over comments that were deleted from the city police department’s Facebook page, which carried a terms-of-use warning that indicated comments could be deleted if they included personal attacks, profanity or advocating violence.

The women said their comments were critical of the department, but did not violate the posted standards. The city reached a settlement with the women for $7,412.50 to cover costs and attorneys’ fees.

First Amendment issues become more complicated when applied to accounts held by borough officials.

The American Civil Liberties Union said people do not lose their rights by being elected to public office, but they are, at the same time, subject to limits that the First Amendment places on them in their role as a government official.

As they work through cases involving public officials’ use of social media, the courts will have to determine what role a public official takes on a given account. If it’s a private account, the official may act as any other member of the public to limit the audience and delete comments. If, however, the official is using the account as part of their government service, they can’t stop people from joining the conversation or block them from the account based on their viewpoints.

“Blocking residents from a government social media account or personal account used for public business creates First Amendment issues because it amounts to government prohibition of speech,” Melewsky said.

Using social media for official business, whether by an individual or a municipality, subjects the posts to the open records law in Pennsylvania.

As with First Amendment issues, a public official’s social media accounts can be subject to the Right to Know Law if the official is using them for public business because the focus is on the content itself, not where that content was created, Melewsky said.

“The Office of Open Records has ruled that when social media is used for official purposes, the postings and lists of blocked users are subject to public access under the Right to Know Law,” she said.

Last August, the Office of Open Records granted the appeal of a Chambersburg man who had petitioned that borough for Facebook records from Mayor Darren Brown’s public figure Facebook page. Noel Purdy requested copies of all posts and associated comment threads from the page that related to or mentioned in any way a proposed Rail Trail mural. The request included posts and comments deleted from the page as well as emails and messages communicated through Facebook Messenger.

The borough partially denied the request, stating that the Facebook posts were the mayor’s private social media activity and therefore not borough records.

The Office of Open Records found that it was “immaterial whether or not the borough has oversight over the Facebook page or authorized the mayor to maintain such an account.”

It also said the page contained discussions and posts regarding activities in the borough as well as contact information for the borough, and directed the borough to provide the requested information.

To negotiate these legal issues, Leslie Suhr, director of public affairs and new media at the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, said the organization recommends that boroughs have a policy in place not only for the borough itself, but also for its officials regarding the use of social media.

“That’s the first step in connecting all the dots and making sure everything is correct,” Suhr said.

The association also connects its members to training on social media issues as that becomes an increasingly effective way for officials to reach residents, particularly its younger citizens.

“This is where everybody goes to get their news and information, network and exchange ideas so it’s an important avenue,” she said.


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Teen of the Week
Teen of the Week: Respect breeds success for Camp Hill senior

It starts with a handshake, Camp Hill High School senior Noah Smeriglio said.

“You meet a man or woman in the eye and you give them a firm handshake,” he said. “That way they know you are going to respect them.”

It is that respect for others, that Smeriglio said was instilled in him by his parents, that drives him to succeed and give his all.

“We focus on respecting people,” he said. “When you respect someone and you work for someone or work with someone, you will work hard. That’s how our family motto is.”

Smeriglio’s success has been bountiful.

The 17-year-old son of Stephanie and Ray Smeriglio, of Camp Hill, boasts a 93.4 percent GPA while taking numerous college prep and advance placement classes.

He is also a standout athlete, having been the goalkeeper and captain of the two-time state champion Camp Hill boys’ soccer team.

Off the field, Smeriglio is involved in numerous clubs and organizations, a few of which he founded, and is a volunteer junior firefighter.

He intends to study chemical engineering in college, but is still deciding what school to attend.

“I love to help people,” he said. “That’s something I could do in chemical engineering by helping to progress society.”

Smeriglio helped found the Outdoor Adventure Club and Food and Culture Club at his high school. The Food and Culture Club started as an effort to try something new.

He said people bring in recipes to share and try and the club has also brought in guests, one of whom was Smeriglio’s father.

He joked that the stromboli his father helped make were the best food he’s had during his time in the club.

“You can’t compete with the ‘bolis,” he said. “Everyone loves them.”

Success, however, hasn’t always been easy.

Smeriglio said during his freshman year he carried a B average and did not put forth the effort he was capable of.

“I was basically thinking ‘oh, I can just not do any work at all and get good grades,’” he said. “It was eye opening and not remotely true. It was a full realization that I have to put in the work.”

He said it has been rewarding applying himself in the classroom.

Smerigilio credited his turnaround to two things: better organization and his parents.

“I have a big calendar at home and I literally write everything on it,” he said. “There is just so much stuff, so I stay organized and I know where to go and when.

“What I’ve learned is that I can do as much as I want as long as I slowly build and build,” he said. “I’m really building for college right now.”

Above all else, Smeriglio said it is his family that has driven him to the success he’s had so far and is what pushes him to strive for even more in the future.

“My family, that’s what it all comes from, my mom and my dad,” he said. “The work ethic comes from them. We stress family first. That’s a big thing to help each other.”


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Cumberland County
Carlisle area groups collaborate on workforce study

Local agencies are rolling out a survey for students, teachers and parents to determine if Cumberland County’s workforce difficulties may be, in part, psychological.

The Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp., Leadership Cumberland and several local education institutions will gather data on attitudes toward skilled trades and the perception of the county’s job market.

The survey will be distributed to students, teachers and parents in the fifth, seventh, and 11th grade levels at Cumberland Valley, West Shore and Carlisle Area School Districts, as well as the Carlisle Center for Careers and Technology and the Cumberland-Perry Area Vocational-Technical School.

“The main idea is asking ‘what do [respondents] consider a good-paying job? What do they consider a good career,’” said Laura Potthoff, CAEDC business and workforce development manager.

The study will help identify if a stigma still exists toward high-performing students going into the trades, as opposed to a college education path, despite the declining wage advantage of a college education.

Results of the study will help local business and education leaders develop skilled trades curriculum, particularly focused on health care, advanced manufacturing and heavy equipment operation and maintenance — the three employment areas where Cumberland County has the biggest labor deficit, Potthoff said.

CAEDC will host a roundtable Thursday with its business and education partners on heavy equipment programs, which are being coordinated through Cumberland Valley School District, Cumberland-Perry Vo-Tech and Harrisburg Area Community College.

“We’re putting together a program and building a program so that when students graduate from CV, and if they don’t want to go to college, they can get $50,000 or $60,000 per year jobs,” Potthoff said. The program will also offer advanced training through a pre-apprenticeship program at Cumberland-Perry Vo-Tech, and a final apprenticeship program at HACC.

Business recruiters have told CAEDC that even workers with the basic industry and Occupational Safety and Health Administration certifications for heavy equipment operation and repair are hard to come by, Potthoff said.

Cumberland County, perhaps even more than the rest of the country, has struggled with a lack of skilled labor as demand for workers has grown.

Like most of the nation, the county has seen steady growth in its total jobs since 2011, with 2016 private-sector employment averaging over 116,000, as opposed to just over 103,000 at the trough of the recession in 2010. Cumberland County’s unemployment rate has also dropped from 6.8 percent at the height of the recession to 4.1 percent in 2016.

But at the same time, businesses have complained about a chronic shortage of skilled labor, even as they have increased wages for such positions relative to other jobs.

A Brookings Institution study, looking at wage data from 2010-15, found that the Harrisburg-Carlisle metro census region had one of the most economically divergent outcomes during the recession and recovery. Average pay per worker increased 5.9 percent in the Harrisburg-Carlisle region from 2010-2015, Brookings found. But median wages dropped 1.6 percent, and the number of Midstate residents earning less than half that median grew 5.3. percent, indicating that new jobs or workers added during the five year span were disproportionately on the low end of the pay scale.

Census data also shows that high school grads in the Midstate saw median wages decline 3 percent since the recession, and college grads lost 2.5 percent. Those with associates or technical education, however, saw median wage gains of 2.2 percent.


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During the Jan. 18 legislators’ breakfast hosted by the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC, Rep. Patty Kim — the panel’s only Democratic official — said that Harrisburg needs to move a major bipartisan initiative to get things moving.

“Another big ticket item that we can all agree on ... may be minimum wage,” Kim hinted.

The minimum wage debate in Pennsylvania has dragged on for years. But a recent study by the Keystone Research Institute, an admittedly liberal-leaning organization, suggests that some of the roadblocks to raising the state’s minimum pay are being overstated.

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is mapped to the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. But most of the surrounding states — its immediate competitors for business attraction — have enacted their own legislation to raise that dollar figure higher. Gov. Tom Wolf has included a minimum wage increase in several of his budget proposals since taking office, and garnered widespread support from fellow Democrats on the issue.

Aside from a better quality of life for low-income workers, a minimum wage hike is attractive for the state’s budget. Raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $12 would save the state $50 million in Medicaid cost-sharing, as more workers would make enough to not need the program.

More importantly, a $12 minimum would bring in $33.9 million in additional income tax per year and $61.4 million in new sales tax, according to budget figures.

Objections

Republicans have been less enthusiastic, although state Sen. Scott Wagner — a GOP contender against Wolf in the governor’s race — had introduced a bill to raise the wage 50 cents per year for three years, to $8.75.

The objection by conservatives and business groups is that raising the wage will force employers to cut back hours and slow job growth, since they are being forced to pay above what would otherwise make economic sense.

Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office found that, under this model, raising the minimum wage to $12 would eliminate the equivalent of 54,000 full-time jobs in the state.

But others, including the KRC, said this model isn’t accurate, given the concentration of capital within a limited number of corporate interests.

To illustrate this, the KRC recently compared the employment and wage growth of the food service industry — one that has a high proportion of minimum wage and non-full time jobs compared to other sectors — between Pennsylvania and surrounding states that have higher minimum wages.

The KRC found that, contrary to the usual model, surrounding states that raised wages for food workers also were able to add more jobs, with the exception of West Virginia.

The future of this model may change, KRC Executive Director Stephen Herzenberg said, as Wolf has proposed to extend overtime protection for salaried workers, a move that would not require legislative approval — unless Republicans successfully change the promulgation threshold, as discussed in HB 1237.

Wolf wants to raise the level below which salaried workers must receive time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours per week of work. The current level is $23,660 annually, with Wolf proposing to raise it incrementally to $47,892 in 2022, making roughly 460,000 more salaried workers eligible for overtime.

“Pennsylvania has lagged behind other states when it comes to legislative initiatives on pay increases, but when it comes to executive initiatives, Wolf has been more aggressive than governors in other states,” Herzenberg said. “You have an interesting geographic contrast to work with.”