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Alaska Legislature 'likes' Facebook access, but with conditions

Pat Forgey
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Nikiski, and his daughter Madi. Micciche backs greater use of Facebook by lawmakers. "My goal is to get the folks in that demographic engaged in any way that I possibly can."

JUNEAU -- Legislative leaders still aren't willing to give their aides access to Facebook on state computers, but they are willing to let some of the grownups use Facebook, so long as it is for work.

After rejecting a proposal to eliminate all restrictions on use of Facebook at work, the Legislature has instead allowed specific workers access. And it has to be for business purposes.

Several legislators said Facebook was part of life and how they communicate with constituents, especially young constituents, but found concern from others who were worried about possible political or ethical transgressions.

"My goal is to get the folks in that demographic engaged in any way that I possibly can," said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Nikiski, and an advocate of more access to Facebook.

A number of legislative employees said they needed to use the popular social-networking site for their jobs, including those in less-visible positions, such as the offices of the Ombudsman, Legislative Legal Services and Victim's Rights.

The Legislative Council, the joint House-Senate committee that governs the day-to-day business of the Legislature, considered its social media policy one more time this week. Legislators themselves already had the ability to use Facebook.

Committee Chair Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, strongly urged the committee to make a final determination of its policy, and not "keep kicking the can down the road."

But not everybody thought more Facebook was needed -- or was even good for the Legislature.

"I have no intention personally of using Facebook for legislative business," said Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak.

Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said that if using Facebook was so important, people should use their own time and computers to do so.

Legislators wanted to be able to have their staff members use Facebook to talk with the public about state policy, with some of the younger members such as Reps. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, and Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, seeking the change. They were joined by some Net-savvy older legislators as well, such as Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has warned about the potential pitfalls of social media usage, and the need for policies to ensure that tools such as Facebook are not misused.

For example, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence recently offered critical comments about the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage. Comments posted to his Facebook page were all supportive of Republican Pence's position.

That's because Pence's staff deleted critical comments, an action which raised First Amendment or political favoritism questions.

Legislative Legal Director Doug Gardner drew legislators' attention to the NCSL warnings, and cautioned that if staff time was used to delete critical postings, it could be seen as using public employees inappropriately.

Stoltze warned that other inappropriate political uses he wanted to avoid would include legislators using Facebook to collect supporters' names and addresses.

"They can go right to your campaign chairman and your campaign," he said.

Further, Facebook can simply be an inappropriate waste of time.

"I view the Legislature as a business environment," he said.

Legislative ethics rules continue to apply on Facebook to using staff time for campaigning, as they do elsewhere, said Joyce Anderson, administrator of the Legislature's Ethics Committee.

It would be up to legislators to monitor their own staff and make sure Facebook is used only for legislative business, Micciche said.

"My staff will not be posting pictures of their cats on state time," he said.

But a divided committee decided the risks of more staff access to Facebook were not worth taking. While it opened up usage of Facebook by professional staff, it declined to allow the aides in legislators' offices similar access. Legislators themselves continue to be have personal access.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com