Just over a year ago, I wrote a post outlining how far too many politicians simply don’t understand the internet in general, and social media in particular. Sadly, the situation hasn’t improved much.
Recently, a point of privilege was raised in the provincial legislature of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, over one Member’s alleged membership in an anti-government group on Facebook. Several comments on the group’s page involved death threats against the Premier of the province. In his point of privilege, the Government House Leader noted that the Facebook group had a membership list and among the listed members was the MHA for St. John’s Centre. The Government House Leader argued that online, as in public, one would join a group “because you support the values and you support the objectives of the group and you support what the people of the group are doing.” He added:
I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the group and the members of that group of which there is a member sitting in this House today, who is endorsing and supporting that – threats to her [the premier's] life and threats to her home, implicit in that are threats to her family, to her children and her grandchildren. Mr. Speaker, that, in my view, is reprehensible and totally, totally unacceptable.
The Government House Leader finished by calling on the House to suspend the Member for St. John’s Centre because of her public support for and participation in the Facebook group and its activities.
The Member accused was not given an opportunity to speak. The Speaker recessed briefly, then returned with a ruling in which he reminded Members that should they choose to engage with social media, they had a responsibility “to use them wisely” and that they should hold themselves “to a higher standard than would be accepted and acceptable for the general public.”
He did admit that, upon examining the Facebook pages in question, while the Member for St. John’s Centre was listed as a member, it was impossible to determine “how this participation was initiated and accepted” nor was there any evidence that she made any comments on the site that would connect her to the offensive statements:
It cannot be clearly and unequivocally stated that the Member for St. John’s Centre was herself carrying out an implied or actual threat; therefore there is no prima facie case of privilege.
Despite this fact, the Speaker still found a contempt against the House and asked the Member to apologize, which she refused to do: “I will not apologize for something that I have not done. I am sorry; I cannot apologize to the House.” She was asked twice more times to apologize and refused to do so each time, forcing the Speaker to suspend her for the remainder of the day.
Then, a week later, the Speaker in turn apologized to the Member, noting that after having the finer points of how Facebook actually works explained to him – notably that individuals can “find themselves attached to a group without their explicit consent”, his finding of contempt was “erroneous”.
This is not the first ruling the Speaker has made on a matter involving social media. Almost a year ago, a similar point of privilege was raised in the House of Assembly, this time over a comment made on Twitter. A Member had tweeted the previous night, after the House had adjourned, that another Member – whom he did not identify – had lied in the House during that day’s debate.
As in the case above, the Speaker heard the point of privilege and then ruled immediately. The ruling was somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the Speaker seemed to accept, or at least recognize, that comments made outside of the House are beyond the Speaker’s power to act on. He stated that had an accusation of lying been made in the House during debate, he would have immediately demanded that it be withdrawn. If the Member had made the comments while outside the House, perhaps on an open line radio program, it would have been regrettable, but the Speaker would not have been able to act on it since it was outside of his jurisdiction – in other words, not a proceeding of parliament. However, the fact that the tweet was made after the House had adjourned seemed to be the only factor preventing the Speaker from acting:
had this accusation of lying been sent while the House was sitting so as to escape being sanctioned for unparliamentary language while still making the accusation, I believe it would be a prima facie case of privilege.
In other words, had the tweet been sent while the House was sitting, even if the member himself made it from outside the Chamber, the Speaker would have found a breach of privilege, meaning he would have considered the tweet a proceeding of parliament.
A number of Speakers in other jurisdictions have been called upon to rule on comments made on social media, or have issued statements on the use of social media by Members. In these cases, the general consensus is that anything said on social media is not part of proceedings of parliament, therefore the Chair should not be expected to rule on allegations of improper conduct on social media. Also, comments made on social media are not protected by parliamentary privilege, consequently, Members should conduct themselves accordingly.
The Newfoundland and Labrador social media incidents are reminiscent of a Twitter-related incident which occurred in the Legislative Assembly of the Australian state of Victoria in November 2011. In that instance, a Member had made critical comments about the Speaker on Twitter, and those tweets were then brought to the Speaker’s attention. The Speaker demanded that the Member in question apologize, but wouldn’t specify what the apology was for because he didn’t want to read the offending comments into the official record. The Member consequently refused to apologize. The ensuing debate was quite spirited and raised some important points, including:
- If the Speaker ruled on a comment made outside of the chamber, that would set a precedent;
- There weren’t any standing orders or previous Speaker’s rulings what would support the Speaker’s position. Forcing members to apologize every time they offended another Member on social media would set a dangerous precedent;
- The Speaker couldn’t seek an apology since the comment wasn’t made in the House. Had it been made in the House, he could ask the Member to withdraw the comment;
- Demanding a Member apologize for something without specifying what the Member must apologize for would again set a precedent;
- Without knowing the seriousness of the alleged insult (since the Speaker wouldn’t explain), how could appropriate sanctions against the Member be applied?
The matter ended up referred to the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Orders committee, which released an interesting report in December 2012 on the use of social media in the Legislative Assembly and reflections on the Speaker, which you can read here.