There continue to be problems with social media use by courts, judges, and court staff.  Just last week a federal lawsuit was filed by a former executive assistant-secretary to a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge, alleging he improperly fired her last year because of her politically-oriented Facebook posts (https://www.statesman.com/news/lawsuit-texas-gop-judge-fired-secretary-for-anti-trump-facebook-posts/LG5qZpKQOo0yXuteVlshXP/).  The secretary alleges that her free speech rights under the federal constitution were violated.  From my perspective, this is a very unfortunate situation that could have been avoided if the court had fully implemented what I consider to be very basic actions covering social media use.  These actions not only cover the personal use of social media by judges and staff, but also by courts themselves.  Perhaps now is the time for a reassessment of social media in the courts, starting first with court use, then judges and staff.

In the past few years I have written articles and made numerous presentations about the use of social media in the courts.[1]  I consider the use of social media by courts to be an invaluable tool to increase transparency, accessibility, accountability, and public service.  Over the past few years more and more courts have begun to use social media to great effect.  I always cite the Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona for its exemplary use of social media – check out how this court does so at https://superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/ .

Now that we have years of experience with social media, how is it working out?  Overall, I think well, but there are several important considerations.  Some are old, some are new:

  • What social media platforms are best for court use? The quick answer is to focus on the ones that get used the most by the public:  Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  The trick is to match which platform is best for what purposes.  For instance, is the information you want to distribute very time sensitive (like jury service or a sentencing in a high-profile criminal case)?  If so, Twitter works well, especially with the news media.  Is the information more static, like photos of the court and how to get to the courthouse?  Then, Facebook is great.  Does the information lend itself to visual presentation, like explaining how to file a civil case or documenting a special event?  Then, YouTube is great.
  • A very successful platform is “live chat” with the public, the same as many online retailers use to provide real-time interaction. Courts have found this to be a very popular function that is often used by law firms to get quick answers to questions.
  • Social media can be used for not only external, but internal uses. A prime example is training of staff (especially with videos for orienting new employees).  An internal “chat” function is a great way to enhance communication.
  • Unfortunately, there are instances of official government sites being spoofed by fake sites that purport to be yours. One way to help avoid confusion is to have your sites be “verified” with the social media host, resulting in a blue check mark appearing on your site.  Also, it is a good idea to be proactive and routinely search the Internet for information about your court and its judges.  For example, what might be appearing on Yelp or similar review sites?  I set up Google “alerts” for my court, judges, and my name to help me be aware of what was being posted or written about us.
  • Use your website to drive traffic to your social media platforms with links and other information letting people know that social media is available to help them as they interact with the court.
  • Make sure you have tight control over your social media use. Restrict access to the administrator or owner role to very few, trusted individuals.  Make sure you have clear standards about what is appropriate content – an oversight committee or group may be a good idea.
  • Once you commit to using social media, keep the content fresh with routine posting of new information.
  • Always keep in mind that your use conforms to the applicable Code of Conduct (ethics) for your court and its judges and staff. It is very easy to run afoul of ethical considerations!
  • Every court should have a social media policy for its staff, whether or not the court itself uses social media. Virtually every staff member uses personal social media, and it is important that the court make it clear what is acceptable conduct (it appears that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals may have not done such a good job of this!).  A wonderful video about personal use was produced by the Victoria Justice Ministry in Australia a few years ago:  http://www.justice.vic.gov.au/utility/social+media/social+media+policy
  • The use of social media for the recruitment of staff can be very effective in ensuring a wide dispersion of the court’s job announcements and compliance with EEO requirements.
  • Make sure your social media use complies with legal requirements, such as access for disabled people under the ADA, or data privacy.
  • Keep aware of emerging trends – for example, what’s the latest with the use of social media for service of process (it’s already been done, and may become widespread with the use of digital signatures, etc.)?

These are just a few of the ongoing issues with the use of social media in the courts.  How is your jurisdiction using social media?  Is it working out well, or have there been problems?  Comments welcome!

[1] For example, “Social Media and the Courts: Innovative Tool or Dangerous Fad? A Practical Guide for Court Administrators, International Journal for Court Administration (Vol. 6, no. 1, June 2014).  https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2894158 

 

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