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City Throws Out Ethics Complaints About Zimmerman's Social Media Use

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Four ethics complaints were filed against Austin City Council member Don Zimmerman; two that deal with his use of social media will be dismissed.

City of Austin ethics commissioners have decided they’ll hear two of four complaints filed against Austin City Council member Don Zimmerman. The two they decided not to hear? They were the ones focused on his use of social media at work — and a controversial post he made on Facebook.

Credit Screenshot from facebook
Council member Zimmerman replied to a facebook post about gay marriage, saying that allowing gay marriage was like allowing pedophiles to marry children.

But, the concerns bring up questions everyone using a work computer might want to have answered.

It helps if you think of this ethics question in three parts. We’ll start with the easiest one: Is it OK for publicly elected officials to post controversial thoughts on social media? In the case of Don Zimmerman, the Council member used Facebook to say legalizing gay marriage opened up the doors for pedophiles to marry children.

“Politicians say outrageous things all the time and often using their public forum to do it,” says David Anderson, a professor at the UT Law School.

So that's a yes to the first question.

But the Council member used social media at work. So part two: Can you use your work computer for personal matters? That’s really up to your employer.

If you work for the City of Austin, it’s not allowed. But this is where it gets hazy. Commissioners earlier this week questioned whether or not using social media at work constitutes personal use of a city computer. Which leads us to part three: What if your job requires you to use social media? All of the Council members have Facebook and Twitter accounts where they post community news. The only issue is that Zimmerman made his contentious post from his personal Facebook page.

But, Anderson says, he’s still expressing himself as an elected official.

“I don’t think there’s any easy way to draw a line between personal use and political use,” he says.

The city will follow through with its ethics hearing on the Council member’s campaign finance reporting – but has thrown out the social media complaints.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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