Facing the Music for Facebook Post

Should a person serving in an official public capacity be held accountable for posts on his or her personal Facebook page? That’s the question in a current controversy surrounding a member of the Camden school board.

The story goes like this: On May 1, the night President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, school board member Sean Brown, 29, turned to his fiancé and said, “That’s great, but it doesn’t make me feel any safer here in Camden.” He then began ruminating on the myriad issues plaguing the city’s schools—the dreadfully high dropout rates, the 249 incidents of violence reported last year—and eventually decided to make his feelings known on Facebook.

Sometime after 1 am, Brown posted the following: “Now if we could only do something about our local terrorists that destroy dreams and burn futures.” The post linked to a photo of Bessie LeFra Young, Camden’s school superintendent.

Naturally, the superintendent wasn’t pleased and the matter quickly came under investigation by the State Ethics Commission, which ruled that Brown’s use of social media was inappropriate. Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf is reviewing the commission’s ruling. He could recommend that Brown be censured, which is an official written reprimand for his actions.

Brown tells me he is surprised by the attention his post has gotten. “I was just venting out loud, writing as an angry board member in the most indignant and eloquent way I could think of,” Brown says. “What’s going on in Camden’s schools is frightening, it’s sickening, and it’s unacceptable. You’re dealing with children’s lives here. I take that responsibility very seriously, and I won’t be quiet just because it’s the polite thing or the politically correct thing to do.”

Besides, he adds, his post was only intended for his private Facebook friends. When appearing before the Ethics Commission during its fall hearing, he raised the following hypothetical question: What is the difference between making a comment like this on Facebook and saying it to friends in his own living room?

“There is some difference, obviously, but I think it falls somewhere between writing a newspaper editorial and talking to a room full of friends,” Brown says.

Regardless, Brown says he doesn’t plan on using Facebook any differently in the future.

“If anyone looks at this situation and says, ‘Sean Brown needs to censor himself better,’ that person is looking at the situation the wrong way and is being too narrowly focused. Maybe ‘terrorist’ wasn’t the best word to describe the failure of the school district, but there is something going wrong here and we need to focus on what we should be doing about it.”

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