British Columbia

Surrey councillor Laurie Guerra's private Twitter account called into question

The issue underscores a nagging problem for elected officials: should they be allowed to block members of the public?

Governments should consider social media policies for elected officials, says B.C. Civil Liberties Association

Laurie Guerra, centre, is facing criticism from people online after she locked her Twitter account, which identifies her as a Surrey city councillor. (CBC News)

Up until last week, most people could read Surrey councillor Laurie Guerra's tweets.

Now, only 176 followers are privy to the thoughts of a councillor in B.C.'s second-largest city. 

Guerra has blocked a number of her critics on Twitter and Facebook and, in an unusual move, made her Twitter account private. 

The clampdown came after a news report that Guerra had attended a post-election victory party organized by opponents of SOGI — sexual orientation and gender identity — a provincial directive that promotes inclusivity in public schools.

Guerra faced backlash online from parents who felt her anti-SOGI stance didn't align with her role as a board member for the Autism Society of B.C., which advocates for inclusivity.

Now, people are calling out the councillor for concealing her online presence.

The issue underscores a nagging problem for elected officials: should they be allowed to block members of the public?

"If you're a public person and you are saying statements about public issues, people have a right to see that," said Surrey resident Jodi Murphy, who follows local politicians on Twitter.

It also points to the volatility of social media and balancing the need for public figures to shield themselves from abuse.

Murphy acknowledged that politicians are entitled to privacy. But any account that denotes an official's public role — in this instance, Guerra's Twitter account identifies her as a Surrey city councillor — should be subject to greater oversight, Murphy said.

Surrey resident Jodi Murphy says she followed Guerra before the councillor made her Twitter account private and can still see her tweets. But most people aren't able to now. (Twitter)

No case law on the issue

Guerra did not respond to requests for comment. But the City of Surrey said Guerra's Twitter is a personal account and that it doesn't have jurisdiction over personal social media accounts. 

Vancouver and Burnaby also told CBC News they don't have social media policies for elected officials.

Municipal governments should reconsider that, said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. 

Vonn pointed to a legal battle last month, where Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson was sued by three residents who accused him of violating their charter rights by blocking them on Twitter.

Watson argued his Twitter was a personal account. But in the face of legal battle, Watson conceded that his account was public and settled out of court. He unblocked the users and muted them instead.

While there remains no case law on the issue, the settlement is a "temperature taking" for future decisions, Vonn said.

"People are alive to this being an issue."

In a statement last month, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson's office said he would encourage all members of council to "maintain a high level of public accessibility through social media and other means." (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Politicians face 'brutal tweets'

Blocking users can help stem online abuse and trolling, especially for female politicians.

Women are three times more likely than men to receive sexist comments online, according to a study this year that compared how male and female politicians are treated on social media. 

Three-term Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer, who has more than 16,000 followers on Twitter, was vocal about online abuse during her time in office.

"I had some pretty brutal tweets with words I don't even feel comfortable typing," Reimer said in an email. 

"We need to be so much better collectively at calling out trolls for what they are and that includes not allowing them to hijack the communications tools of their intended victims."

More clarity on the issue could soon be found south of the border. 

Last May, a court ruled that U.S. President Donald Trump violated the constitutional rights of Twitter users by blocking them. His administration is appealing that decision.

About the Author

Alex Migdal

Journalist

Alex Migdal is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He's previously reported for The Globe and Mail, Guelph Mercury and Edmonton Journal. You can reach him at alex.migdal@cbc.ca.

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