If I wrote that the North Korean government has blocked me from viewing their Twitter feed, you probably wouldn’t be at all surprised. Many of you also know that I have been extremely critical of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the last year, or so, and thus you wouldn’t be surprised if I told you that they had blocked me from their Twitter feeds. I have never posted directly to the North Korean Twitter feed and thus I haven’t been blocked. And although I have posted critical memes and posts to both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, neither have blocked me from their Twitter feeds. However, I asked a simple question; whether it was true that two individuals were being blocked by the El Paso Police Department, and their response was to block my access to their Twitter feed.
Although, the El Paso Police Department’s blocking of my access to their Twitter feed, and others, raises many questions i.e. First Amendment rights – there is one specific issue that needs to be addressed – limiting the access of anyone to public information records and what it means in regards to the freedom of information laws of the nation and the State of Texas.
Let’s get past the technical question first as I am sure that both the El Paso Police Department officials and their supporters are likely to bring it up. Twitter is an open social media platform intended to openly convey information. As an open medium, the police department’s actions do not limit my access to their public information, it just makes it more tedious for me to access. Now that I am blocked, in order for me to see the public information, I must be logged off of Twitter to read their posts.
This issue is a Texas public information issue, nonetheless. The El Paso Police Department is selectively blocking certain individuals from exercising their First Amendment rights as well as limiting their access to public information. That violates, at the very least, the spirit of the Texas Public Information Act.
This is not the first time that a Texas government official has blocked anyone from their Twitter account. In late February of 2011, several news reporters complained that then Texas governor Rick Perry was blocking journalists from his Twitter account. Perry’s official position, on the matter, was that it was his “personal account” and thus, he could “manage it as he likes.” There have been at least two other cases of Texas public officials blocking journalists from their Twitter feeds. One involving a controversial Houston school district trustee and a recently elected Texas senator that had blocked another journalist during her campaign. Most recently, Turkey has allegedly blocked Twitter during the recent coup there last week.
Rick Perry argued that his Tweeter account was a personal account and thus not subject to open records requests. Therefore, this brings us to the matter of who owns the Twitter handle @eppolice and who manages that account. This is important because under the Texas Public Information Act we must first determine whether the account is an official account for a Texas public entity. Lucky for us, the City of El Paso was extremely responsive to my open records requests that I submitted on Friday.
One of the two requests that I filed on Friday asked the City who was responsible for the police department’s Twitter account. According to their response, there are four individuals that are responsible for the Twitter account.
They are: Darrel Petry, Sgt. Robert Gomez, Mike Baranyay and Sgt. Enrique Carrillo. As many of you know, Darrel Petry is the El Paso Police Department’s Public Information Officer. Mike Baranyay also works in the public relations department of the police department.
All of them are city employees.
My second request asked for the city’s official social media policy. As expected, the city’s official policy manual focuses on the responsibilities of employees and enforces that the city owns the content. The October 24, 2012 policy that the city sent me specifically states “social media content is subject to open records laws.” [III. Procedure, 6.; page 5]
There you have it; the city’s official policy is that the Twitter account is subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
There is no ambiguity there.
As an aside, I would have liked to ask these questions directly through Twitter, but I couldn’t because the El Police Department has blocked me from their Twitter account.
Now that we know that the El Paso Police Department’s Twitter account is a public information channel and that it falls under the Texas Public Information Act then the obvious question, is the El Paso Police Department in violation of the law by blocking me, and other selected individuals?
We know that four individuals are the ones that are likely blocking access to the Twitter account. As a reminder they are: Baranyany, Carrillo, Gomez and Petry. As some of you know, the Texas Public Information Act carries with it criminal penalties that include jail time for violations of its provisions.
The Texas Public Information Act is designed to allow for the rights of the people to hold their government accountable, to allow for peaceful protests of government policies and to embrace the federal Freedom of Information Act. Whether you stand in support of Chief Greg Allen or against him is immaterial to the actions of the police department.
By selectively limiting the access to certain individuals to their Twitter feed, it sends a very chilling message; that the El Paso Police Department does not believe that they should be scrutinized by the public.