Edmonton city councillors have unanimously rejected a social media policy that would have encouraged them to reason with some followers instead of blocking them.
At a council services meeting Tuesday, 12 councillors and Mayor Don Iveson declined to draft a formal policy as suggested by the city's integrity commissioner, Jamie Pytel.
Coun. Sarah Hamilton listed several reasons why the proposed policy would be onerous for councillors, citing posts she has received on Facebook that include racist and sexist language.
"If I block that person and they complain, I'd have to write out a defence about why this comment is inappropriate," Hamilton told CBC News after the meeting.
"Having to defend your decision to declare that inappropriate is time-consuming and you end up entertaining a comment that was never meant to be legitimate."
She said tolerating any abuse online sends a poor message to the public.
"If you are watching your female or person-of-colour elected representative and they are humouring the gendered, and racist and sexist comments that come — and they do come — if you identify as any one of those things, that sends a message that that space is not for you."
Iveson said he had supported the idea of a policy to show council is accountable to the public but backed council's position for health and safety reasons.
Councillors shouldn't be discouraged to block or mute people who are "spewing online hate," he said.
"This is psychological and emotional abuse," Iveson said. "Just because we are democratically elected and accessible to people doesn't mean that our workplace should be less safe than other people's."
Council requested a draft policy last fall after Pytel found that Coun. Mike Nickel breached council's code of conduct with posts on social media.
Pytel's proposed policy said users should not be blocked simply because they disagree with a council member on a topic, or are critical of a councillor.
"Blocking should be done very sparingly and only with justification," Pytel wrote. "Muting is preferable where appropriate and justified."
Other city councils dealing with same issue
In response to council's decision, Pytel told CBC News that municipal councils across the country are grappling with the issue and looking for ways to help elected officials on social media.
"My goal, which may be aspirational, is to provide a safer space for them to carry out their council duties while communicating on this powerful medium," Pytel wrote in an email.
She said Canadian courts are expected to rule on the constitutionality of blocking, and that a policy may be useful.
"I do not think any court would find a constituent's freedom of expression was violated if a council member blocked someone for trolling, espousing hate speech, abuse, etc."
In the U.S., however, courts are finding that social media pages are considered the new public square, she noted.
"This is definitely an evolving area."
Social media literacy
Sarah Dharsi, a social media specialist with Kaden Ave Communications in Edmonton, said she's disappointed that council rejected the policy.
"I think to just kind of shut it down because people feel limited by it, is a bit short-sighted."
Dharsi agrees that hateful messages and posters should be blocked.
But she said a policy could actually help improve the safety of councillors and candidates by outlining steps they can take if they are targeted.
"Is this something worth reporting to law enforcement? Is this something worth reporting to Twitter?"
Dharsi said Twitter has safety features councillors could get familiar with. She also suggested that rejecting a policy shows a lack of social media literacy.
Councillors could take a social media course or hire a social media manager to take the external pressure off them.
"They have other things to do, they can't argue with angry folks all day," Dharsi said.
Coun. Aaron Paquette agreed with his colleagues that marginalized groups are targets for hateful messaging and that he wants to foster a healthier online environment.
"I believe there is a service in making sure that other young Indigenous youth, for example, are not exposed to these things," Paquette said. "I want them to see that they can engage in public service respectfully."