Public officials should be on notice about their public postings

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on March 4, 2017.

Public figures should be prepared for criticism from voters, or any other quarter.

But it’s another story when that criticism is a public backlash to disparaging comments officials might have made targeting members of a specific religion or ethnic group, Bridgewater State University political science professor Brian Frederick says.

That seemed to be the case in North Attleboro last month, when a sitting selectman and selectman candidate were found to have derogatory comments against Muslims and those of various backgrounds on their Facebook pages.

Former selectman candidate James Lang came under fire just days before he was eliminated in the Feb. 14 preliminary election after posts on his Facebook page referred to Muslims as “muzzies,” “animals” and bombmakers, and called for violence against the “towelheads.”

Days later, anti-Muslim posts and memes shared by Selectman Paul Belham mocking the way Mexicans speak were exposed.

The findings came just a year after public outrage forced RTM member Paul Couturier to resign after sharing similar bigoted Facebook posts against Muslims and African Americans last March.

There have been calls for Belham to resign, but he has ignored them.

Meanwhile, a Sun Chronicle review of publicly open personal Facebook pages belonging to Attleboro city officials and selectmen of area towns turned up no other cases of bigoted posts.

“There’s an expectation that you as a public official will probably take stances on different positions that may draw some criticism,” Frederick said. “But that’s different than using disparaging terms against certain types of people. That’s a separate term of behaviors not consistent with how a public official does his or her job.”

The most recent posts again drew public criticism last week from Murray Unitarian Universalist Church in Attleboro, which protested Couturier’s Facebook offerings last year.

“We deserve better than this from our elected officials,” the Rev. Gretchen Weis said.

Others wrote to The Sun Chronicle to call for Belham’s resignation. And, in an online Sun Chronicle poll, 163 of 186 respondents said municipal officials and candidates should be held accountable for the posts they make on social media.

Following Couturier’s posts last March, some rose to his defense citing his First Amendment right to freedom of speech — but Frederick said public criticism is to be expected, especially when a public official is involved.

“When you are a representative of a community, you are going to be seen as a reflection of the views your community upholds,” Frederick said. “Whether it’s fair or unfair, you don’t get a pass just because it’s on your personal account. If you are disparaging large groups of citizens that you represent, there’s going to be backlash.”

Frederick said it would be impossible to keep those with differing views out of public office, but said elected officials tend to be more constrained in sharing views on social media that they know would be highly controversial.

And, the voters they represent might expect that constraint, Wheaton College professor Brad Bishop said.

“There’s an expectation of leaders to be respectful of all constituents and to do the best they can to be representative of a diverse range of people in that community,” Bishop said. “When they’re found to make disparaging comments against one group, it raises concerns if they really do care about being representative of all of the people in their district.”

The political science professor said elected officials should expect any aspect of their lives to be under scrutiny and social media is, despite what some may think, in the public domain.

“There’s this confusion over whether Facebook pages or Twitter pages are really private,” Bishop said. “When people become more professionalized, there tends to be more of a public awareness.

“As a politician or a public official, you can safely presume their pages could be seen by a lot of people — beyond the set of eyes that they might think look at it.

“An offensive joke or a public meme, it takes on a certain character,” he said. “People think you’re promoting that content.”

When questioned by The Sun Chronicle, Lang and Belham both said the posts did not reflect their views and were instead the work of social media hackers.

Whether that’s true is known only to Lang or Belham, themselves, Frederick said.

But Frederick, who has studied political behavior and psychology, said it follows the pattern of other politicians caught in sticky situations.

“When they’re challenged and realize that they represent a broader group of views, they might start to realize that their posts are offensive,” Frederick said. “It could hurt their own political standing, and so they might try to come up with some kind of realization as to why that’s coming about. They’re now regretting it because they feel exposed.

“I think politicians are always going to want to cite stories — whether true or untrue — that only further the narrative they’re interested in.”

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