Purging the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Facebook page – is it legal?

Bumped for the excellent comments: "Several local and national outlets are now covering the story including the Plymouth Patch, Boston Magazine, Current, Mediaite, and Wonkette." Quincy Patriot Ledger: "Local sheriff defends Obama assassination joke," and Sheriff McDonald Defends the Joke Because "Nazis!" Scroll down to read, including a copy of the public records request by BMGer Chris Matthews. - promoted by Bob_Neer

As has already been noticed, Plymouth County Sheriff Joe McDonald’s bad joke at the GOP St. Patrick’s Day breakfast is causing him a lot of social media trouble.  ThinkProgress picked up BMG’s post which brought Sheriff McDonald national attention.  Then, people around the country who were offended by the joke discovered that they could post directly to his office’s Facebook page, and they started doing so.  Here is an example (screenshot taken last night – click for larger image):

As quickly as those posts went up, someone (presumably in McDonald’s office) took them down.  And now it appears that that same someone has completely disabled the ability of people outside the Sheriff’s office to post to the page.  I guess Sheriff McDonald can dish it out, but he can’t take it.

BMGer chrismatth, who posted the original item calling attention to McDonald’s bad joke, also adds the fascinating observation that by removing these comments, McDonald might be violating the state public records law.  The Treasurer’s office says the following about its social media pages (emphasis mine):

Please note, that Records Retention Law of the Commonwealth requires the Mass.Gov portal team to preserve records created or received by a state employee. Pursuant to this retention requirement comments posted or messages received via an official state agency page on a third-party web-site (such as an official agency profile on a social network) will be treated as state governmental records and may be permanently archived.

You know the old saying that the cover-up is usually worse than the crime, right?  That might apply here.  McDonald’s joke was surely in extremely poor taste, but, as BMGer loquaciousliberal accurately points out, it was far from original and has been made about many presidents and presidential candidates in the past.  But if McDonald has violated the state public records law by deleting comments critical of his behavior on his Facebook page, well, that would be a no-no.  I’ve got a call into the Secretary of State’s office on the question of how the public records law applies in this context, and will update when I have more information.



Discuss

30 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. "public" pages are required to retain ALL comments?

    Even the kind of boorish crap that appears on most unmoderated internet comment forums? Even profanity, threats, etc? No amount of moderation is OK? What if someone posts porno pics to the page? Is it illegal to take it down?

    • That's a good question

      which is why I have sought more info from Galvin’s office. Haven’t heard back yet.

    • I don't think it's a question of moderating...

      They certainly seem to have the right to delete whatever comments they deem offensive – they should probably have a public policy to make it clear, though.

      While they can delete whatever they want, they need to make a record of it before deleting the post the way I see it. Have they done so? Maybe it’s time to use my MuckRock.com account to find out.

      Also – for the record – a bunch of the comments on his FB page that I saw were nasty and offensive and deserved to be deleted.

      chrismatth   @   Tue 19 Mar 11:37 AM
      • I suspect that's right.

        My guess: they don’t have to publicly display everything that gets posted, but they are supposed to keep a record of it before deleting.

        • Is there any reason to think that they haven't?

          which is to say, I doubt that they have retained those comments, but is there any evidence to suggest that they haven’t?

  2. Another example...

    …of how I think public records laws, or at least certain interpretations thereof, overreach. These comments could have just as easily been sent to a private email account or posted on his person FB timeline. They are in no way public record in the sense of being official communication. Sure, he should be a man and allow the criticism to stand, but violating the law? – PLEASE!

    • How are these different from a press conference?

      Consider an officially-sanctioned press conference, with reporters present, and someone making a transcript. I hope we can agree that every question that is answered is certainly part of the public record. Now suppose a questioner poses a question and the official responds “I’m not going to dignify that with an answer”. In my view, this exchange is still part of the public record. Surely, if an otherwise-legitimate questioner were forcibly removed based on a question, the statement that provoked the action would be part of the public record.

      An officially-sponsored web page that invites comments — especially a Facebook page — is, in my view, the electronic equivalent of the above press conference. Every comment is a “question”. Removal of a comment is analogous to the “I’m not going to answer” example above. Silently deleting comments strikes me as the online equivalent of having armed thugs frog-march a questioner away from the scene.

      I think the law is precisely correct as it stands — in this case, it is serving exactly as a public-records law should serve.

      • I disagree

        A questions at a press conference are usually higher quality than nasty FB comments and could be argued serve better for foster public discussion. Then again, I’m not even sure I accept the premise that you need to preserve the transcript of a press conference as a public disclosure matter, though I’m sure the media themselves would be happy to do that.

        • Definition of "public record" is the point

          The point you raised is about the definition of a “public record”.

          The quality of questions at a press conference is immaterial to that point, as is the disposition of any transcripts. Questions at a press conference are the exemplify “on the record” exchanges — inviting a question, no matter its quality, puts it on the record and therefore properly encompassed in the “public records laws”. In particular, an official can’t invite a question, decide he or she doesn’t like it, and then expunge it from the record.

          The question of need is, in my view, answered by the passage of the public records law. The sort of exemption you apparently advocate would, for example, remove email and even snail-mail correspondence as well as FB comments — how is an unwanted email different from an unwanted FB comment? Under the standard that you offer, an official who was besieged by hundreds of letters and emails could discard ANY such communication.

          The point of public records laws is to preserve ALL records, so that outsiders determine what is and is not material — never mind assess the “quality” of each.

          • YES!

            You have it exactly right, IMO, and to be clear I’m arguing what I believe the law should be, not what it is. There should be no obligation whatever to keep all correspondence of either the paper or electronic variety. If you write a letter to a public official its none of my business what you wrote and how the official responded nor is my correspondence with a public official any of your business. If there were 100s of letters advocating a particular position and the official chose to ignore and discard them and decide in the way opposite of what those letters advocated he risks paying a political price, but that is far as it should go.

            • I strongly disagree with you

              The inclusion of the right to petition the government in the First Amendment is NOT coincidental. That right means absolutely nothing if that government can pretend that the petition(s) was never received.

              In the same way that freedom of speech implies freedom of reading, so to does the right to petition demand that the government acknowledge the receipt of such petitions.

              To take your argument to its extreme, how would the public know an official were being bribed or blackmailed if that official could simply discard the communications of the perpetrator?

              To use your example, if there were hundreds of letters advocating a particular position, and officials were free to discard them, then there is no way to show that the letters ever existed. There would be NO political price to pay, because there would be no way to refute the claim that any were ever received.

              • Established

                The two of you disagree.

              • The hundreds of letter writers would know they exist...

                …and they might vote against the official and possibly organize others to do likewise if the issue were that important to them.

                What if you and I were conspiring to commit a crime and communicated about it? If we were conscious about destroying the papers before we were caught we would have every right to discard them. I discard correspondence all the time, but we could be committing crimes too. I say just hold them to the same evidence tampering standard as the rest of us.

                I don’t buy your interpretation of the right of petition. That just means you can’t be prosecuted for trying to get the government’s attention. There is no right for your petition to be heard just like free speech and press does not imply the right to have your speech listened to or your writings read.

  3. Several local and national outlets are now covering the story

    including the Plymouth Patch, Boston Magazine, Current, Mediaite, and Wonkette.

  4. Sheriff McDonald Defends the Joke Because "Nazis!"

    The Plymouth Patch has Sheriff McDonald defending his joke about assassinating President Obama:

    “The joke I told was like The Christmas Carol story,” McDonald said Tuesday afternoon.

    Right. Because we know how Charles Dickens loved Presidential assassination humor. But Sheriff McDonald didn’t stop there. He went full Godwin.

    I can imagine what some of this place comes from not 2013 United States, it’s more like Nazi Germany in 1938.

    There’s your Plymouth County Sheriff. Instead of simply apologizing and acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, an elected official entrusted with our public safety shouldn’t be making jokes about murdering President Obama, he likens people critical of his “joke” to Nazis.

    • This "defense" is WHY the "joke" needs to stay in the public record

      When Mr. McDonald characterizes the claim he alleges were made on his FB page, he underlines WHY it should be illegal to simply delete them.

      How do we know that he’s received death threats, as claimed? The moment Mr. McDonald started talking about the comments on his FB page, he put those comments into the public record. I can’t possibly evaluate what they might have said if I can’t read them.

      • Hopefully you'll soon have the opportunity to read them.

        From Chris Matthews on March 19, 2013:
        To Whom It May Concern:

        Pursuant to the Massachusetts Public Records Law, M.G.L. c.66, §10, I hereby request the following records:

        A record of all messages received as well as public comments, public wall posts, and public recommendations posted to the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page located at facebook.com/ThePlymouthCountySheriffsDepartment/ between 6:00pm on March 18, 2013 and 12:00pm on March 19, 2013 including as much as possible of the following information: the name of the Facebook user, the content of their message/post/comment/recommendation, the reason for deletion, and the PCSD employee who deleted the message.

        I also request that, if appropriate, fees be waived as we believe this request is in the public interest, as suggested but not stipulated by the recommendations of the Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records. The requested documents will be made available to the general public free of charge as part of the public information service at MuckRock.com, processed by a representative of the news media/press and is made in the process of news gathering and not for commercial usage.

        I expect the request to be filled in an accessible format, including for screen readers, which provide text-to-speech for persons unable to read print. Files that are not accessible to screen readers include, for example, .pdf image files as well as physical documents.

        In the event that fees cannot be waived, I would be grateful if you would inform me of the total charges in advance of fulfilling my request. I would prefer the request filled electronically, by e-mail attachment if available or CD-ROM if not.

        Thank you in advance for your anticipated cooperation in this matter. I look forward to receiving your response to this request within 10 business days, as the statute requires.

        Sincerely,

        Chris Matthews

        chrismatth   @   Tue 19 Mar 4:58 PM
        • Can the state even access them at this point?

          The state does not control Facebook and I am not sure I like the ramifications and precedent of subpeoning FB to force the information out of them. Besides making a federal case because you want to see some stupid Facebook comments – really???

          • Do you understand this process?

            I have sent a request for a public record to the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department. They can either provide me with the record, deny me the record, or tell me they don’t have the record. If they denied me I believe I can appeal to the Secretary of State, but no one’s going to be getting subpoenaed. As far as Facebook goes they deal with subpoenas on a regular basis so I don’t think you’re looking at any precedent being set.

            You’ve established that you don’t agree with the public records law and that’s fine – you’re entitled to your opinion. For all you know I might agree with you. We don’t get to choose the laws we follow though and we hold our elected officials to a higher level. The top law enforcement official in a jurisdiction who manages a multi million dollar organization that deals in human lives should be expected to know and follow all the rules that apply to running his facility. Even the rules he doesn’t agree with.

            chrismatth   @   Wed 20 Mar 1:35 AM
      • If he's getting death threats...

        …wouldn’t he on his own motive not want to delete those to prove they are occuring? If the investigators come to him and ask him to produce the comments and he can’t, he’s the one who suffers by having a weaker case.

  5. Are you sure the comments are deleted?

    Or just ‘hidden’ from the feed?

    • The public can no longer see them.

      So, no real difference. Hopefully Chris’s public records request will clear all of this up. :)

  6. Sheriff McDonald Says He Would Tell the Joke Again

    Apparently not comprehending that it’s a legitimate concern when those in charge of our public safety are cracking jokes about our President being assassinated, Sheriff McDonald told Fox 25 Boston that he would tell the joke again (from the 2:07 mark in the video):

    Fox 25 Boston’s Sharman Sacchetti: Would you tell it again?

    Sheriff McDonald: Not too soon because I don’t want to be known for only one joke. But would I tell it in the future? Yeah, I’d certainly give it some consideration.

    Sure, you don’t want to be known for only your Presidential assassination gag. You have to mix it up. But the real evidence in the interview that Sheriff McDonald truly doesn’t get it comes right before that passage, at the 2:00 mark.

    A joke is a joke; and reasonable, intelligent people understand when a joke is a joke.

    Sheriff McDonald isn’t some yahoo cracking wise from a bar stool just before closing time. He’s an elected official entrusted with public safety. If there are certain people who should possess the judgment not to make jokes about murdering people like, say, our President, it’s public safety officials, like Sheriffs. And one of the reasons that our elected leaders in the public safety field should refrain from making such jokes is NOT that “reasonable, intelligent people” take it the wrong way, but rather that it offers validation to those who don’t “understand when a joke is a joke.”

    The deeply troubled individuals responsible for shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, and countless other locations don’t qualify as “reasonable” and don’t “understand when a joke is a joke.” A Sheriff should possess the judgment not to validate that type of mindset, even in jest. And if he doesn’t understand that, he shouldn’t hold an office that is responsible for others’ public safety.

    • that quote deserves twitter hashtag game treatment

      #sherriffcomedyroutine or something more clever.

      Pretty astounding he’d double down like that. In many ways, this follow up is even worse than what he said in the first place. He could have just said, “oops, that was a dumb thing to say and I shouldn’t have done it,” and moved on. The story would have been dead.

      RyansTake   @   Wed 20 Mar 6:35 AM
  7. Senate Candidate & Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan Chimes In

    Michael Sullivan, who Sheriff McDonald is supporting in the Republican primary in the special election for U.S. Senate, was at the GOP breakfast at which Sheriff McDonald made his “joke.” The former U.S. Attorney doesn’t seem concerned about a public safety official making assassination jokes.

    Mike didn’t hear the joke but urges great care on such topics.

    Because a public safety official should exercise “great care” when joking about the topic of Presidential assassination.

  8. Plymouth County Sheriff's Facebook Page GONE

    As of this moment the PCSD Facebook page has disappeared. There’s still a link to it from PCSDMA.org, but the page itself is gone. Facebook.com/ThePlymouthCountySheriffsDepartment/

    chrismatth   @   Wed 20 Mar 11:04 AM
  9. Wow what an idiot

    I honestly thought this story was getting blown out of proportion but this moron is doing all the damage to himself. What a self-inflicted wound. Well maybe it’s time to bring out the blimp for him as well.

    The easiest thing to do is admit you screwed up, apologized, and move on. It’s worked for a ton of celebrities and political figures before, doubling down is not the way to go.

  10. More local and national coverage

    Plymouth Old Colony Memorial: “Plymouth County’s Sheriff Joe McDonald fielding calls for resignation: St. Patrick’s Day breakfast joke draws more anger than laughter”

    Washington Times: “Republican sheriff forced to defend joke about Obama”

    Associated Press via Washington Post: “Republican Mass. sheriff defends joke about Lincoln suggesting Obama visit theater”

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