Are State Ethics Rules Keeping Up With Social Media?

One state legislator's legal battle showcases how outdated laws can hamper citizen engagement -- and get officials in trouble.

Stambaugh posted this Facebook update to her #InfoIsEthical page, where she has chronicled her challenge to the ethics ruling.
Melanie Stambaugh is in her third year as a Washington state legislator representing the 25th District, located near the city of Tacoma. At the age of 26, Stambaugh is the youngest woman elected to the legislature in 80 years. Like others of her generation, she uses social media to engage with her constituents. “I believe this is the people’s government,” Stambaugh says, “and the way to be most effective is to share with them the details of what I do so they can provide feedback on what I’m working on. Social media is really the way to get that kind of instant feedback and real-time data.”

But Stambaugh’s use of social media suffered a setback when the state Legislative Ethics Board last year said she violated the rules 44 times by posting state-funded photos and videos on her campaign Facebook page. The board ruling carried $220,000 in fines and an order to remove the videos.

In most cases, the matter would have ended there. Stambaugh would have paid the fine and moved on. Instead, she challenged the ruling late last year, claiming the board was too restrictive in how it viewed a 1994 law that says state resources can’t be used for campaigning. The board said there needed to be “separation” between a legislator’s campaign and legislative resources, such as videos. Stambaugh had embedded the videos on her Facebook page. If she had just provided a link that brought the viewer back to the state’s website, the whole mess would have been avoided.

Stambaugh, however, doesn’t want to do that. The law, she says, is outdated. It’s keeping her from engaging constituents and it’s hampering transparency. Since the decision, Stambaugh has linked to, rather than embedded, videos on her Facebook page, and, as a result, has seen a significant drop-off in the number of people who view them. Stambaugh, who launched a Facebook page entitled #InfoIsEthical, says the drop-off means fewer people know what the state legislature is doing and fewer are engaging with her on the issues. The ethics rules as they currently stand, she says, “inhibit that connection.”

Ethan Wilson, an ethics policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says there have been plenty of issues where “older laws come into conflict with new and well accepted technologies.” He says that the line drawn in the Stambaugh case -- linking versus embedding -- is an interesting one. “I suppose time will tell if similar events will happen, causing laws and interpretation of those laws to change,” he says.

For now, Stambaugh has begun to privately produce her own videos, which she can embed on her Facebook page. The Legislative Ethics Board ruled in February against her challenge, but reduced her fine to $5,000. She has submitted a motion for reconsideration. Either way, Stambaugh says ethics rules aren’t working if they unnecessarily restrict how legislators and the public use social media. “People want ethics and want government held to an ethical standard,” says Stambaugh, “but the application of these ethics standards does not meet the goal of an open and transparent government.”

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.